Will Gerrit Cole Be Worth It?

The 2019 season still has much in store for the New York Yankees. However, some can’t help but look ahead to 2020 as the stacked free-agent market has already started creating a buzz. In a season where Brian Cashman has had a knack for finding unlikely offensive contributors (Gio Urshela and Mike Tauchman to name two), there have still been many questions about the pitching:

  • Do the Yankees have a true ace?

  • Can Luis Severino pitch well in October?

  • Will the Yankees simply need a ringer on the front end of the rotation (like Gerrit Cole) in order to win the World Series?

The answers to those questions may be answered this upcoming week when the Yankees take on the Astros in the ALCS. But for now, let’s entertain the idea of Cole’s free agency and what it could mean for the two best teams in the American League going forward.

 It’s no secret that Gerrit Cole vastly improved after signing with the Astros two years ago. With improved spin rate and increased velocity, Cole is now able to get more rise on his fastball, a pitch that is nearly unhittable since it arrives at the plate above most batters’ swing planes. With an improvement of about an inch of rise on his fastball (from about 8 inches in 2017 to about 9 inches in 2019), Cole’s pitch is devastating because it looks like a strike until it’s only a few feet away from the hitter.

In fact, Cole produced 220 swings and misses in the top third of the strike zone or higher. Nobody has done that in the Statcast era. Cole also now throws his four-seamer at a rate of 51.6% which is up about 4% from 2017 (his last season with the Pirates). These high fastball trends are markedly different from Cole’s time with the Pirates where he was taught to pitch to contact. It is obvious that his new approach has been effective. With home runs rates through the roof in 2019, being a great strikeout pitcher is even more important. Here is a look at Cole’s dominant high fastball. In 2019, Cole boasted a 36.9% whiff rate on his four-seamer. In the recently completed ALDS, he struck out 25 batters.

The postseason thus far has further cemented Cole’s status as an elite pitcher. As Yankee fans perceive the team’s greatest weakness to be starting pitching, it’s easy to see the success of another team’s pitcher–who will be a free agent this off-season and be frustrated that they didn’t acquire him when he was available. Would Cole have been as good as he is now if he had signed with the Yankees? It’s hard to tell because a lot of his improvement seems to have come from instruction from the Astros’ analytics department and the mentoring from Justin Verlander.

Moving forward, it’s hard to imagine the Yankees not making a move for Cole. Having reset the luxury tax last off-season, Brian Cashman seems primed to spend big this off-season to get that player that could put the Yankees over the top. With a payroll of just over $224 million, the Yankees will only pay the first tier level tax of 20% on the $18 million that they exceeded the $206 million threshold by. Based on last year’s free-agent market, Cole, being the top pitcher available, will likely have a very high asking price. If the Yankees are willing to dish out around $200 million for at least five or so years, they may be able to land Cole (David Price, Max Scherzer, Zach Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw are the only pitchers in MLB history to receive a $200+ million contract).

There will be consequences for this big-spending down the line though. In the coming years, the Yankees will have to spend big if they want to keep players like Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres in pinstripes. Additionally, many of the stronger arms in the bullpen (like Adam Ottovino and Zack Britton) will be free agents in 2021.

In an MLB that has become increasingly competitive at the top, and in an atmosphere where building a dynasty is extremely difficult (there have been no repeat World Series champions since the 1998-2000 Yankees), there is much less of an incentive to spend big on a pitcher like Cole. Why spend so much money if it can’t nearly guarantee you a World Series like it could when the Boss was running the show in the 1990s? Rather, teams, even those with a lot of money, would like to make more shrewd purchases for players like DJ LeMahieu instead of spending big on someone like Manny Machado. This fact leads me to believe that Cashman and the Yankees will offer Cole a sizable deal, but nothing drastically expensive that could hurt them down the line.

In the end, though, I still believe that the Yankees have a good enough rotation to be a perennial World Series contender the way that they are currently built (see my article from September 4th of this year). Even with that, I believe that if the Yankees have a good shot at getting Cole, then they should definitely take it. Does anyone else get goosebumps thinking about a rotation of Cole, Sevvy, Paxton, and Tanaka? That staff would be as good as anyone’s!

As the Yankees battle the Astros over the next week, I’ll be rooting hard for them to win. I will also be thinking about next year when the addition of an arm like Cole’s could help the Yankees win for many more years to come.