There used to be a time when free agency centered around George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees. The Boss had the ego, the money, the maniacal drive to bring the game’s top players at any cost to Yankee Stadium. And it resulted in a great parade of stars.
Now things are different. The competition for the best is intense and spread out from coast to coast. But that doesn’t mean the resolve of the Yankees to get what they want has diminished.
We mention this because it’s becoming apparent that the Yankees desperately want to sign righthander pitcher Gerrit Cole, the prize of the 2020 free agent class. And it appears they do not intend to be outbid by the Dodgers, Angels or some other suitor.
There are multiple reports the Yankees have made signing Cole their top priority and have the permission of ownership – led by Steinbrenner’s son Hal – to pay whatever it costs to make it happen.
If this is true, there seems little doubt Cole’s package will exceed David Price’s record $217 million deal. And doesn’t that put a smile of the face of Cole and his agent, the omnipresent Scott Boras.
Major League Baseball’s winter meetings will be held next week in San Diego and the chase for Cole will certainly be one of the major topics for conversation.
The Yankees interest in Cole is not new. In 2008, they made him the 28th overall pick in the MLB amateur draft. But Cole turned down an opportunity to sign to attend UCLA. Three years later, the Pirates made him the No. 1 overall pick.
If the Dodgers and Angels interest in Cole matches that of the Yankees, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the righthander sign a deal approaching $250 million.
Whether that’s a smart idea is a matter for debate. In retrospect, the Red Sox likely wish they hadn’t committed so many years and dollars to Price, who hasn’t met expectations.
But Cole might be a better risk. He is 29 years old and his talent seems to be on the rise. If someone gives him a seven-year contract that would bring him to the same point former Astros teammates Justin Verlander and Zach Greinke are in their careers. Verlander just beat out Cole for the American League’s Cy Young Award.
Both the Angels and Yankees are badly in need of starting pitching. The Angels moved to shore up their staff with a curious trade that brought them Dylan Bundy from the Baltimore Orioles. Bundy was a first-round selection in the 2011 amateur draft. But he had a 4.67 ERA in five seasons with the Orioles. In 2019, Bundy he had 162 strikeouts in 161 2/3 innings with a 4.79 ERA. He also allowed 29 home runs.
The Dodgers interest might not be as great. Even though NL ERA leader Hyun-Jin Ryu is a free agent, they still have Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw to anchor their staff. Perhaps the Dodgers would be more interested in pitcher Stephen Strasburg or third baseman Anthony Rendon.
There’s no indication any deal with Cole would be completed next week. Negotiations are likely to continue into January. But that will only work to Cole’s favor. The more time that passes, the more time Boras will have to undercover interest from other teams, which will only up the ante.
Signing Cole would require the Yankees to again convince themselves that high nine-figure deals are worth it.
The seven-year, $153 million deal that gave to Jacoby Ellsbury in 2013 may go down as one of the worst free agent contracts in history. Ellsbury has not played since 2017 because of injuries and the Yankees are now in the process of trying to recoup the last $26 million they owe, saying Ellsbury violated the terms of his contract by seeking outside medical assistance without asking the club’s permission.
The Yankees are also dealing with the reality that trading for Giancarlo Stanton was a mistake. By acquiring him from the Marlins in December 2017, they assumed the remaining $265 million of the $295 million remaining on his 10-year deal. Stanton played in only 18 games with 72 at-bats in 2019 because of a myriad of ailments.
Despite all this, the Yankees clearly are willing to take the risk. The sent general manager Brian Cashman, manager Aaron Boone, pitching coach Matt Blake and former starting pitcher Andy Pettitte to California to talk to Cole last week.
If the Yankees decide to give Cole the deal he expects, one which would average $35 million annually, they would do so aware they still must deal with re-signing Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Gleyber Torres in the next few years.
Right now, it seems the Yankees are all-in. George Steinbrenner would be proud.