Somewhere, George Steinbrenner is smiling.
In a move straight out of the old boss’ playbook, the New York Yankees backed up a fleet of Brinks trucks for top free-agent pitcher Gerrit Cole, reportedly getting the hard-throwing right-hander to sign on the dotted line for a record-breaking, nine-year, $324 million contract. The Yankees in the process re-established themselves as the sport’s most powerful entity and leaving no doubt how they feel about their chances in 2020 and beyond.
It’s easy to look at this move on the surface and think of the Yankees’ heyday of the 1990s and early 2000s when they tried to “buy” World Series titles. At the end of that dynasty, there was plenty of truth to that notion — the signings of Carl Pavano, A.J. Burnett, and Jacoby Ellsbury prompt a hearty chuckle. But what is sometimes overlooked, of course, is how New York used its deep pockets early in its decade of dominance to augment what it built with a stellar farm system and through shrewd trades and signings.
For the Yankees’ rivals, this signing should be eerily similar to those days. General manager Brian Cashman and his baseball operations department have spent the last few years “rebuilding,” so to speak. Of course, the Yankees can never actually rebuild — expectations are far too high and they have way too much money — but they have spent time and resources to making their farm system one of the best in baseball. You could see this coming a mile away. The Yankees were biding their time and building an elite (and also relatively inexpensive) core, just waiting for the right piece to put them over the top.
The 29-year-old SoCal native hit the market at the perfect time for the Yankees, who have reached the American League Championship Series in two of the last three seasons. Their downfall, however, has been a lack of starting pitching. To be fair, they’ve had a solid starting staff, and the injury to Luis Severino in 2019 didn’t help. But the rotation was the clear weak spot of team that otherwise should have been a complete wagon. That they got so far the last three Octobers speaks to how good their lineup and bullpen have been.
Cole is the final puzzle piece, it seems. He’s coming off the best season of his career, in which he was one of the most dominant pitchers in the sport from March through October. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound moose logged 212 1/3 innings with a tidy 20-5 ERA and a league-leading 2.50 ERA. No one in baseball struck out more batters than Cole, who sent 326 batters back to the dugout by way of the K.
He was even better in the postseason, setting the tone with a 15-strikeout performance in Game 2 of the American League Division Series and following that up with a 10-strikeout showing in a decisive Game 5. Even with a hiccup in Game 1 of the World Series, Cole logged 36 2/3 postseason innings, with Houston winning four of his five starts. In his playoff career, Cole is 6-4 with a 2.60 ERA, striking out 78 in 10 starts.
Now, with a healthy Severino back in the fold, the Yankees have a dynamite 1-2 punch atop the rotation. Those are bona fide workhorses, which should take some of the pressure off the already-elite bullpen. James Paxton might be the best No. 3 pitcher in baseball now, and it’s laugh-out-loud funny to think about Masahiro Tanaka as a fourth starter.
This move also could not have come at a better time for the Yankees. Their main rival, the Boston Red Sox, don’t seem to have a path to contending for the division in 2020, and it might be a while before they contend for another world title. It’s unclear even what Boston’s plan is right now. The Yankees’ main competition in the American League, the defending AL champion Houston Astros, are embroiled in a cheating scandal and are reportedly shopping one of their best players. Oh, and not to mention, the Yankees pried Cole away from them.
Obviously, there’s an undeniable risk when you give a quarter of a billion dollars to a pitcher, especially one who sits in the mid- to upper-90s like Cole. We’ve seen time and time pitchers like this break down for a season or two.
But when you have the resources of a big-market team like the Yankees, these are the types of risks you can take, and that’s especially true when you’re this close to once again taking over the league for the foreseeable future. With Cole in pinstripes, that’s now the expectation in the Bronx, and anything short of that should be considered a failure.