After four seasons without a single playoff win, the Yankees built their new contender a different way, a more modern way. They traded veterans for prospects. They revamped their player development system. They didn’t outspend the rest of the league like the Yankees of old; their last nine-figure free agents were Masahiro Tanaka and Jacoby Ellsbury, who signed their contracts before the 2014 season.
Then Gerrit Cole reached free agency—Cole, whom the Yankees had coveted ever since selecting him in the first round of the 2008 draft, and whom they tried to acquire in a trade before the 2018 season. The first time, he went to college instead, and eventually went no. 1 three years later; the second time, he went via trade to Houston, where he developed into the exact sort of pitcher befitting a no. 1 selection.
When Cole reached free agency, all talk about financial responsibility and contract constraint left Yankee Stadium, where it never truly belonged in the first place. Yankees ownership directed GM Brian Cashman to bring Cole to the club. And on Tuesday night, one day after Stephen Strasburg set a new record for the largest contract for a pitcher, Cashman followed through and Cole shattered Strasburg’s short-lived record. For the cost of nine years, $324 million, a fifth-year opt-out, and a no-trade clause, Cole will pitch in the Bronx. And the Yankees are the Yankees once again.
If those numbers seem extravagant—and they are, pushing Cole past the pre-2019 record for a pitcher by more than $100 million—Cole’s 2019 statistics are worth revisiting, in part because they justify said numbers, and in part because they’re simply gobsmacking in their comprehensive dominance. The Astros right-hander set the all-time record in strikeout rate, whiffing 39.9 percent of opposing hitters; he struck out double-digit batters a record 11 games in a row; he led the American League in ERA (2.50) and FIP (2.64). He would have won the Cy Young award if not for teammate Justin Verlander’s historic season of his own, and the Steamer projection system thinks Cole will be the sport’s best starter in 2020.
While other free-agent pitchers this winter require teams to negotiate a balance between Statcast-laden upside (Zack Wheeler) and on-field results (Dallas Keuchel), Cole satisfies both sides with ease. He throws four plus pitches; his fastball—a 97 mph cannon blast that touches 101—was the most valuable pitch in the majors last year. Ever since coming to Houston from Pittsburgh and excising his sinker, he has profiled as one of the best and most consistent pitchers in the sport; this graph shows how his strikeout rate spiked as his sinker usage shrank.
Now he’ll be paid like one, thanks in part to other contextual factors that made Cole’s résumé shine. He’s never suffered a serious arm injury; he’s thrown 200-plus innings three years in a row; he only just turned 29 at the end of last season, theoretically leaving plenty of innings left on his electric right arm. His new contract carries an average annual value of $36 million, the highest in the sport, and will spread over nine years, the most for any pitcher who’s ever made at least $15 million per year, according to the Cot’s Contracts archives.
To the extent that any human being who contorts his elbow in harsh directions thousands of times each year might suffer a debilitating injury, those unprecedented figures carry some risk for New York. But if any team can withstand that risk and benefit from the attached upside, it’s the Yankees, who make so much money as a franchise that no one contract can possibly affect the Steinbrenners’ bottom line.
For years, however, the Yankees hadn’t operated as such. The last free-agent starting pitcher they added to the team—so, not counting previous Yankees they retained, like CC Sabathia—was Tanaka almost six years ago, and their free-agent forays of late had mostly nabbed players for fewer years and dollars. Whether they were biding their time until a player of Cole’s caliber emerged, or whether they simply grew weary of an entire decade without a World Series trip, Tuesday’s coup springs the club back into their rightful financial tier.
— Aaron Judge (@TheJudge44) December 11, 2019
Next season, Cole, Tanaka, Luis Severino, and James Paxton will lead New York’s rotation, with some combination of J.A. Happ, Domingo Germán (pending his suspension for a domestic violence case), Jordan Montgomery, and prospects filling the fifth spot and serving as potential injury replacements. Just as importantly, the Yankees prised Cole from Houston’s grip, simultaneously strengthening their own rotation while weakening the team that knocked them from the ALCS in two of the past three seasons. The 2019 Yankees led the AL in runs despite injuries from almost every key player, they already have the sport’s best bullpen, and now they add Cole to a rotation that already boasted a few All-Star starters.
Now, it seems, the Yankees can develop prospects—see: Severino, among many others—and sign the best players from other teams. Cole is known as something of a data hound, which is why he meshed so well in Houston as he refined his pitching approach to transform from a decent starter with flashes of more to a pitcher worthy of a record-setting contract. In New York, he’ll find a team with the same ethos, maximizing its prodigious natural abilities in terms of both its 25-man talent and resource optimization.
Cole’s addition is no guarantee that the Yankees will sate their oh-so-horrid 10-year title drought. The Astros, after all, didn’t win the World Series in either of the two seasons they benefited from his services. But it’s difficult to imagine a more imposing collection of all-around quality—a fully operational Death Star, if you, or Cashman, will—than that which New York has assembled months before Opening Day. It makes sense; the Yankees are acting like the Yankees again. And nothing is scarier for other teams trying to compete for the same prize. As the Yankees displayed with Cole, outbidding other rich clubs like the Angels and Dodgers, when they set their mind to something, the only ones who can stop them are themselves.