In case you just woke up, and for some reason decided to check our blog before doing literally anything else today, the Yankees signed Gerrit Cole to a nine-year, $324 million contract late last night. It is the first time they have signed a free agent starting pitcher since Masahiro Tanaka in 2013. It is also their first nine-figure contract since Jacoby Ellsbury of that same year. Simply put, this is a monumental day for the franchise. It changes the course of the team and its repercussions will be felt throughout the next decade. Honestly it barely feels real yet–the presser (probably on Friday?) will probably help with that, though.
Obviously, we all have a lot of thoughts on the deal. Derek got it started this morning and Randy added his own perspective earlier this afternoon. Check those out if you missed them. I, being the verbose and opinionated kind, also have a lot to say now that the dust has settled, the euphoria has (not really) died down, and I’ve had some time to digest all of this. Here is my initial reaction to the move and what it means for the Yankees moving forward.
1. The Final Piece of the Puzzle: A common talking point about the Yankees’ two recent postseason failures in Houston has been that the offense has been the primary culprit. That is technically correct but also misses the forest for the trees. Both a cursory glance and an in-depth analysis of the Yankee roster from 2017-19 would reveal only one weakness: the starting pitching. A lack of a true ace atop the rotation hamstrung the Yankees this year and in year’s past, putting more pressure on the offense come October. There is no denying it, 13 games across two years aside.
This was especially acute in 2019, even as the Yankees won 103 games and waltzed to their first division title in six years in the process. It’s important to remember that this success came mostly despite their rotation. Here are some key stats and rankings for the Yankees’ starters in 2019:
- ERA-: 98 (14th)
- ERA: 4.56 (15th)
- fWAR: 10.6 (17th)
- FIP: 4.74 (18th)
- GB Rate: 41.4% (22nd)
- HR/FB Rate: 17.8% (28th)
Compounding this issue, only three starters on the team logged more than 150 innings (Tanaka, Happ, and Paxton) and only one (Tanaka) exceeded 180 innings pitched. In fact, Happ actually threw the second-most innings for the Yankees last year–not great! While the Yankees managed their bullpen loads admirably, this takes a toll. This tells a pretty clear tale. The Yankees had a lot of success but they mostly did so with a rotation that was subpar when compared to the bullpen counterparts and offense, which were obviously excellent.
Gerrit Cole changes all of that single-handedly. Aside from Jacob DeGrom, I’m not sure you can name a better starter in baseball in terms of raw stuff and talent. He’s as good as it gets. The Yankee rotation now looks like this going into 2020:
- Gerrit Cole
- Luis Severino
- James Paxton
- Masahiro Tanaka
I don’t care about the fifth starter at all–we can get into that later but I am pretty confident it won’t be Happ–but that is one hell of a rotation, at least on paper. With the exception of the Nationals, I’m not sure there’s a better one in the league. It’s incredible what one signing can do. About that…
2. Holy Crap is Gerrit Cole Good: Like Derek said this morning, there is no point in overthinking this one. Cole is absolutely absurd. I’m not sure that a lot of fans even understand how good he is, which makes sense, because it is incomprehensible to a degree. I mean, he struck out 40% of the batters he faced in 212 innings pitched in 2019, with a 37% whiff-rate on his fastball. That is preposterously good. Video game good, really. Anyway, that was the best pitch in baseball in 2019 according to FanGraphs (a fastball, lol). His wipeout slider and curveball are not too far behind, and Cole’s spin-rate, release point, and velocity are also off-the-charts. He is an analytic darling. That all results in stuff that looks like this:
In terms of pure stuff, potential, and recent production, I don’t think it is a stretch to call Cole the best pitcher to don pinstripes since Roger Clemens. Only CC Sabathia comes close. Let’s put this in perspective. Cole has thrown more than 200 innings in four of the last five years; the Yankees have not had a pitcher do so since 2013, when CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda both did it. In the last decade, only CC Sabathia has logged more than 6.0 bWAR while throwing more than 200 innings. It last happened in 2011, and Cole was much better last year than CC was even back then.
Taking a longer view, only four pitchers have met or exceeded Cole’s bWAR total while wearing pinstripes from 1959-2019. None have done so since 2001, when Mike Mussina did it. This is a transformational move.
In other words, Cole is a rare specimen for the Yankees. He’s the sort of pitcher that rarely comes about–this alone should justify the exorbitant contract–and is the sort of pitcher the Yankees haven’t had in a long time. He makes the rotation better and he will ease the burden on the bullpen. We are lucky to have him on our favorite team now. (Read more about his stuff and profile here.)
Finally, a few people have suggested that taking him out of the Astros’ pitching lab will hurt his production. I will admit, I did think about that for approximately one second. It makes sense on a superficial level, but a few things: 1) Charlie Morton was incredible in Tampa Bay after departing Houston, 2) the Yanks have overhauled their pitching operation in recent months and are very analytically inclined, and 3) Cole is absurdly talented. I would bet that he’s going to be just fine. (So do the super smart Yankees, by the way–that’s also important to remember!)
3. Not Playing Around: Gosh, the Yankees were not playing around with these negotiations. Everything they did signaled that they were not just serious about Cole, but that they weren’t going to be denied. They said they were willing to break the record–they sure were!–and the typically reserved Cashman even outright said the righty was his number one target. That doesn’t happen often. They talked the talk. A lot of people told me, as I pointed this out over the last few weeks, that I was falling for a company PR move. That did not turn out to be the case, as it were. The Yankees were not playing around.
The Yankees offer to Cole, which he accepted, was as follows: nine-years, $324 million with a full NTC, an opt-out after 2024, and no deferred money. We finally know what the other suitors offered, and well, it doesn’t even come close:
An eight-year, $300 million offer is a serious offer from the Dodgers. It would have been by far the largest deal Friedman has ever given out. And yet the Yankees went an additional year and didn’t defer any money. The Angels, despite all the bluster, simply were not even close. The Yankees simply were not going to be denied for a third time with Cole. They blew everyone else out of the water, and Hal Steinbrenner himself took an active role in the negotiations. It was the Yankees of old.
With hindsight, there are very loud echoes of the CC Sabathia situation here (and, to be fair, not hindsight, as we wrote this at the time). The Yankees had a quiet offseason the year before CC became available–remember the Johan stuff?–and then clearly and immediately signaled to the rest of the league that CC was the Yankees’ to lose. Back then, they offered him the largest starting pitcher contract in history on day one of free agency.
This year, the Yankees went above and beyond again with Cole. They pulled out all the stops, just as they did with Sabathia. Overall, it was very similar. Cole, just like CC did back in 2008, filled an obvious need for the Yankees. It was now or never. Let’s just hope 2020 ends the same way 2009 did. That would be cool.
4. About That Length: As I said last night, nine years is a long time, especially for a starting pitcher. It really is, and the average annual value ($36 million) is huge. Already, a few people have suggested that the Yankees overpaid or whatever, and it is hogwash. It really is hogwash. There are no pitchers of Cole’s quality coming down the free agent pipeline in the coming years, and the clock is ticking for the Yankees. The core is not getting any younger, and three years have already gone by without a title. Signing Cole shows that the Yankees are acting as urgent as we’d like them to be.
It was always clear that reeling Cole in was going to require going above and beyond, and that meant going nine years. Do I love it in a vacuum? No, I probably don’t. Do I care at all, given the context? Absolutely not. Besides, as James Smyth pointed out on Twitter last night, based on current projections, Cole will be worth about $303 million over the total of the deal:
He will decline, of course. The first five years of the deal–where Cole ought to remain one of the game’s most fearsome fireballers–should make up for the “ugly” 2028 and then some. Not to mention, this doesn’t count the postseason. Flags fly forever, and it’s been too long since the Yankees have flown a flag. Cole makes the odds of a World Series happening that much more likely, and for that reason alone, the Yankees had to make this move. The team had already passed on Justin Verlander, Patrick Corbin, Max Scherzer, David Price, and other top-line starters during or around this title window. Cole was the last option and the contract they gave out reflected that.
The deal is cool with me now. It will be cool with me in 2024. It will be cool with me in 2028, assuming he doesn’t opt-out. The Yankees needed Cole and now they have him. You won’t catch me complaining about that. (Also, not for anything, pretend the Yankees signed CC Sabathia to a nine-year deal back in 2008, would you complain with how it all worked out? Didn’t think so.)
5. Payroll Implications: At long last, I get to everyone’s favorite topic in the team’s payroll. Before the offseason began, I put together this primer and estimated that the Yankees had about $209 million committed to their payroll for 2020. I assumed that Chapman wouldn’t opt-out, which was dumb, but actually worked out given the fact that the extension added just $533,000 to the CBT hit, so they were at roughly $210 million committed. Now, after the Cole deal becomes official, the Yankees sit at about $246 million and change. As a reminder, here are the thresholds:
- First Tier: $208 million
- Second Tier: $228 million
- Third Tier: $248 million
Given the fact that the Yanks still need an outfielder, another infielder, and probably another bullpen arm, more money is going to get added to that total. It’s very possible that they exceed the third tier. Now, they might also unload $17 million with a J.A. Happ trade, but they’ll probably add it back with additional offseason moves, in-season promotions, and possible deadline acquisitions. The CBT is a thing of the past–for now. (Although I will note that unloading Happ due to salary concerns will cost the Yankees a prospect, which feels silly from a roster construction standpoint, but whatever. I’m not going to get riled up today.)
Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton are free agents following the 2020 season, which will free up about $36 million of additional “space.” Who knows what they’ll do with those guys, but it’s worth mentioning. At the same time, Joel Sherman noted that the team’s thinking was that, following the CBA expiration in two years, the thresholds will get raised, which made offering a gargantuan deal even more palatable.
In other words, the Yankees will probably be running a higher payroll than they have been recently for the next few years. That’s especially true when you factor in arbitration. I’ll probably turn this into a full post at some point, but an initial reaction here is that this is very good. Remember when fans screamed about Stanton’s big contract harming the team and inhibiting it financially? I don’t think we’ll be hearing much about that anymore.
6. The Balance of Power: Finally, holy cow does all of this impact the balance of power in the American League. The Yankees didn’t just get baseball’s best starter–ZiPS and Steamer both project him to the the top starter in the league next year–but stole him from their biggest threat. The Astros are still a great team, don’t get me wrong, but they’re significantly less fearsome without Cole. That would have been true even if Cole went to Los Angeles, of course, but adding him to the Yankees and taking him away from Houston is about a 14-win swing by WAR before anything else. That’s just beautiful. Even if Houston makes another move, which they assuredly will, they’re not getting a player as good as Cole.
In terms of the American League East, the Yankees are now clearly the best team. Boston is blowing it up, Toronto has a promising core but no rotational talent yet, and Baltimore is awful. Tampa Bay has a fine roster but I will never respect them as a rule. (Besides, the Yankees are better.) This is now New York’s division to lose, as it should be. Things are good.
League-wide, the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers are the clear top-tier right now. I think the Yankees are the best of the bunch though, at least on paper. I’m very excited for the 2020 baseball season, you guys.