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Yankees Resume Reign as Offseason Kings with Historic Gerrit Cole Deal

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistDecember 11, 2019

Houston Astros starting pitcher Gerrit Cole speaks during a news conference for baseball's World Series Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, in Houston. The Houston Astros face the Washington Nationals in Game 1 on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Eric Gay/Associated Press

SAN DIEGO  They are bad men again. Bad men just like they used to be.

No more meekly sitting on the winter sidelines for the New York Yankees. No more slow dancing with the luxury-tax threshold. Late Tuesday night here, the Yankees flexed their financial muscles as if George Steinbrenner were gloriously reincarnated.

Not only did they agree to terms with the best pitcher on the free-agent market, but they dropped a stunning, record deal on right-hander Gerrit Cole: $324 million over nine years, a contract first reported by MLB Network's Jon Heyman and confirmed by multiple B/R sources. It will take a couple of days before the deal is formally announced, time for Cole to run through the prerequisite physical exams and for the rest of the baseball world to digest the astounding news that may well reset the game's balance of power for the immediate future.

The buzz throughout the Manchester Grand Hyatt—winter meetings headquarters—was palpable, and it extended across the street into the Seasons 52 restaurant, where a Yankees contingent that included general manager Brian Cashman walked in to dine just about the time the Cole news was breaking on the establishment's television screens. Cashman, who will not confirm the deal until the medicals are in, received a standing ovation from some patrons and, a short while later, a congratulatory handshake from another diner: new Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon, whose club had been aggressively pursuing Cole.

Question is, how many more standing O's and congratulatory handshakes will Cashman receive over the term of Cole's Yankees career?

Matt York/Associated Press

This is a team that was "rebuilding" as recently as 2016, when July trades of bullpen aces Aroldis Chapman (to the Chicago Cubs) and Andrew Miller (Cleveland Indians) essentially was the fast-forward button that allowed New York to skip several painful rebuilding steps that continue to trip up other less fortunate (and less sharp) organizations.

The addition of Cole, 29, essentially is the Yankees' all-points bulletin that they are done screwing around.

They have not won a World Series since 2009 and, over the past two decades, the Boston Red Sox have won four Series titles to the Yankees' one.

Twice in the past three years the Yankees have advanced to the American League Championship Series only to be sent home by the Houston Astros. In signing Cole, the Yankees clearly made themselves better and definitively made the Astros worse. And with the Red Sox's stated goal this winter to cut salary and dip below the luxury-tax threshold, combined with the Yankees' nucleus of Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres (acquired in the '16 Chapman deal), Gary Sanchez, DJ LeMahieu and a killer bullpen, the game's balance of power—at least in the American League—has shifted seismically in San Diego.

Fear the Yankees, and digest this from Mr. October:

Reggie Jackson @mroctober

What’s Happening? YANKS GET THEIR MAN. AND NOW HAVE WHAT IT TAKES ! We get to the World Series next year. 2020.! See you soon Gerrit. Nice Job, Hal and Hank, Brian The Ca$h Man. We got a baaaaaaaaad Man. Bad with 9a’s bro.

Yes, they are bad men again...with one A or nine A's.

Count 'em and weep.

But also understand, while the Yankees picked the perfect time and place to whip out their checkbook, there was far more involved in this than the final dollar signs.

As a young boy, Cole was an enormous Yankees fan, to the point that he and his father attended Game 7 of the 2001 World Series in Arizona (another painful Yankees loss).

The Yanks drafted Cole in the first round in 2008—28th overall—after Cole's senior season of high school, but he opted to attend UCLA instead. That experience, though, surely played at least some part in Cole's decision Tuesday. Not only did the Yankees handle rejection with grace when he told them he was going to college, but the continuity in the organization led from then to now. Cashman is still in place, and so is Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees' scouting director.

"In typical Yankee fashion, you can't really handle it much classier than they did," Cole told B/R in October. "Damon kept in touch with both me and my father, and so did Cash as college went on."

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 29: Starting pitcher Gerrit Cole #45 of the Pittsburgh Pirates throws a pitch in the first inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on September 29, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Imag
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Then, during the winter following the 2017 season, the Yankees made a move when Pittsburgh put Cole on the trade market, but Houston closed the deal with the Pirates when New York refused to include top prospects Torres or Miguel Andujar. It was another of the Yankees' long line of second-place finishes over the past several years, and it would be a fatal blow this postseason as the Astros eliminated them.

But as things turned out, with Cole stepping into free agency, it would only be a temporary blow. There was plenty of pressure on Cashman not to blow it a third time with the ace who finished second in AL Cy Young voting this season behind Justin Verlander. Much of it was self-induced, but some of it emanated from the increasingly restless Yankees fanbase.

When club officials met with Cole this month, in the room with Cashman, manager Aaron Boone, assistant GM Michael Fishman and new pitching coach Matt Blake was former Yankees lefty Andy Pettitte, who is becoming more involved with the organization after settling into retirement. The club wanted Pettitte there because it felt he could relate to Cole, especially in a New York-Houston sort of way. Pettitte, a Yankees legend who helped the club to five World Series championships, is a Houston native who pitched for the Astros for three seasons (2004 to 2006) between stints with the Yankees.

He could offer his New York experiences in conversation with Cole, answer any questions about the city, talk to him about the current Yankees and identify with the differences between Houston and New York.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 27:  Gerrit Cole #45 of the Houston Astros delivers the pitch against the Washington Nationals during the fourth inning in Game Five of the 2019 World Series at Nationals Park on October 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Will
Will Newton/Getty Images

By then, the full-court press was on. It didn't exactly take the sharpest scout or analytic mind to tell the Yankees what they weren't seeing with their own eyes. Cole led the majors this season with 326 strikeouts, led the American League with a 2.50 ERA, set a record for most strikeouts per nine innings (13.8) and generally dominated as few have done over the generations.

After watching Cole strike out 10 over eight superb innings as Houston eliminated Tampa Bay in Game 5 of their Division Series, Boone, whose Yankees were on deck for the ALCS clash, could only shake his head.

"I was thinking, he looked like he aged out or something," Boone said. "Like, check his birth certificate. He's like the kid still pitching in Little League that was a little too good for Little League, you know?"

On Tuesday, deep into negotiations but before news that the Yankees had landed him, Boone said of Cole: "Special, special guy. … I feel like Gerrit's understanding of who he is and why he's great and to be able to speak about it was really impressive."

Indeed, what makes him a fit for New York, above and beyond his filth on the mound, is his analytical and cerebral mind. Not only does Cole not back down from challenges on the field, but he confronts them off the field. He was good in Pittsburgh but improved by great lengths in Houston. He soaked in reams of information from the Astros' analytics department. He picked the brains of Verlander and, after this summer's trade, Zack Greinke.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - AUGUST 03: (L-R) Wade Miley #20 of the Houston Astros, Joe Smith #38, Gerrit Cole #45 and Justin Verlander #35 chat during batting practice before a game against the Seattle Mariners at Minute Maid Park on August 03, 2019 in Houston, Texa
Bob Levey/Getty Images

Where he was more of a sinker-slider pitcher with the Pirates, he put a four-seam fastball and curve into heavy rotation during his Houston starts.

"He's a baseball nerd," Houston pregame television host—and former Yankees reliever—Mike Stanton said on MLB Network Radio after the news broke Tuesday night.

And Stanton emphasized that he meant that in the most positive way possible. He watched Cole work with Houston pitching coach Brent Strom while not only ingesting all of that information but also deciphering and using the parts that could benefit him.

"This guy is as prepared as anyone," Stanton said. "He's a student of the game. He's not a guy who has all of the answers. He learned every day."

This, aside from his pure stuff, is why Cole is as good a bet to succeed in New York as anyone. His deal includes an opt-out clause five years in—after the 2024 season—and at $36 million annually, who knows, maybe deep down the Yankees brass is secretly hoping he uses that clause and gets them off the hook for the final four years.

It is a ton of dough, no question.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 27:  Gerrit Cole #45 of the Houston Astros reacts after retiring the side against the Washington Nationals during the fourth inning in Game Five of the 2019 World Series at Nationals Park on October 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Ph
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Then again, when the Yankees were eliminated by the Astros in Game 6 of this year's ALCS, Chad Freaking Green was the starting pitcher for New York. And J.A. Happ followed him to the mound, and then Luis Cessa, and then Tommy Kahnle.

If the Yankees weren't going to pounce now, when would they?

When these winter meetings started, David Price's $217 million was the record deal for a pitcher. Then came Stephen Strasburg's $245 million from Washington on Monday here, and then, gulp, Cole's $324 million on Tuesday.

Also when these winter meetings started, Greinke's $34.3 million was the record average annual value in a contract for a pitcher. Then Strasburg upped that to $35 million and Cole to $36 million.

Unlike last year's sluggish free agency, this year's market is lit. And as is usually the case when that happens, it is the Yankees who are doing their part to ignite it.

No more half-measures for them. No more bullpen games when the October stakes are at their highest. They again are playing to win, and you bet their definition of win is different than most anybody else's in this game.

And as much as everyone else may hate it, the order of the baseball universe has been restored.

      

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.