Editor's note: Gerrit Cole has reportedly signed with the Yankees.
SAN DIEGO — It doesn’t happen often, but the last two times a free-agent pitcher turned down the Yankees he did so for less money to pitch in the National League: Cliff Lee with the Phillies in 2010 and Greg Maddux with the Braves in 1992. The Los Angeles Dodgers are hoping Gerrit Cole chooses the same path.
“Oh, we’re in it–strong,” a Dodgers source said Tuesday night.
The Yankees offer a ready-made World Series contender and a legacy-making path similar to what free agent pitchers CC Sabathia and Mike Mussina took. The Angels, Cole’s hometown team, have the advantage of locale, but need to convince Cole they are close to fielding a World Series contender. Only the Dodgers can offer the best of both worlds.
Any team left in the Cole sweepstakes knows the cost: in the neighborhood of $300 million over at least eight years. Money being somewhat equal, sometime soon Cole will decide where he wants to finish his career. It’s that simple. By now it’s not about the deal, but where he wants to play.
“It’s probable that something can get done in the short term,” agent Scott Boras told reporters in his annual media scrum Tuesday afternoon.
What does “short term” mean?
“It could be as soon as [Wednesday],” said one source from a club in the mix.
The inevitable rumors of a “mystery team” have surfaced. (Don’t laugh; in 2010 with Lee that was the Phillies.) But that team with Cole is unlikely to be the Astros. “No, not really,” said a Houston source about the Astros playing a role in the Cole endgame.
The Dodgers have positioned themselves as a wild card player in this offseason market: money to spend with what a string of postseason failures have knitted into a championship-or-bust mandate. They’ve been connected to free agents Cole and Anthony Rendon and on the trade market to Francisco Lindor. This deep into the Cole sweepstakes, Cole must be the priority.
The Dodgers have won the National League West seven consecutive seasons but have not won the World Series since 1988, the fifth longest drought in the league. With the help of a productive farm system, they have cut $75 million off their payroll in four years, avoiding competitive balance taxes each of the past two years. This offseason they have to replace 42 starts that came off their roster: free agents Hyun Jin-Ryu, their innings leader, and Rich Hill.
Signing Cole would give Los Angeles a rotation with prestige and talent to match those of the past two world champions, the 2018 Red Sox and 2019 Nationals, as well as the 2019 Astros, who fell eight outs short: Cole, 29, Walker Buehler, 25, Clayton Kershaw, 31, Kenta Maeda, 31, Julio Urias, 23, and Dustin May, 22. All of them would be controlled by the Dodgers through 2023 except Kershaw, who is signed through 2021. Los Angeles is 15-17 in Kershaw’s 32 postseason games, including 3-7 in his past 10.
Eleven years ago, Cole, then a first-round draft pick, said no to an offer from the Yankees. Actually, after deep study with his father, Cole arrived at a decision so quickly that the Yankees never even made an offer.
Two years ago, the Yankees tried to get Cole again, this time in a trade from the Pirates. But Pittsburgh preferred the package from the Astros.
“He’s our white whale,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “Maybe the third time is our time.”
The Yankees have been viewed as the frontrunner for Cole because of their history with him and because he is the perfect finishing piece for their club, which largely has been built around young position players and bullpen firepower. No Yankees pitcher has thrown 200 innings in a season since Hiroki Kuroda and Sabathia in 2013.
When Cashman and the rest of the Yankees contingent sat down last week with Cole and Boras, they talked about how important Cole is to their plans. Over the next four years, no front-end starters like Cole will shake loose on the free-agent market. Luis Castillo, James Paxton, Noah Syndergaard and Jose Berrios are all very good pitchers, but are not among the truly elite difference makers. This is the time and this is the pitcher.
The Yankees also brought along Andy Pettitte to the meeting with Cole. At one point Cole and Pettitte broke into a sidebar discussion about what it’s like to start a potential playoff clincher. Pettitte started 12 of them–more than any pitcher in history–and his team won eight of them. Cole has started three of them, losing in 2013 NLDS Game 5 and the 2015 NL wild-card game before winning ALDS Game 5 this year against Tampa Bay with an eight-inning, 10-strikeout gem.
The conversation was vintage Cole: a student of baseball history and ever thirsty for knowledge no matter how granular that might help him on the mound.
But Cole’s decision will come down to where he wants to live and pitch. Boras has made it clear that geography is not a priority. (No agent would limit his client’s field of interest, of course). Cole has pitched in both leagues. Would Cole prefer the National League? As a flyball pitcher, would he prefer Dodger Stadium over Yankee Stadium? (Cole has started only four games at Dodger Stadium, going 2-2. He did go to the 2017 World Series there as a fan. He is 2-0 at Yankee Stadium in two starts there.)
Home is a relative term in baseball, and place of birth tends to be overrated in where someone chooses to play. Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer are from Miami and signed with San Diego. Bryce Harper is from Las Vegas and signed with Philadelphia. Mike Trout is from New Jersey and signed an extension to stay in Anaheim. Stephen Strasburg is from San Diego and stayed in Washington D.C.
With Maddux, his priority was to stay in the NL. The Yankees brought him to Broadway musicals, showed him golf clubs in New Jersey, introduced him to Donald Trump and offered him $34 million. Maddux took $6 million less to sign with the Braves. He didn’t want to yield his institutional knowledge from pitching in the NL.
Lee also turned down less money from the Yankees pitch in the NL. Lee’s wife had been harassed at Yankee Stadium during 2010 ALCS Game 3, though Lee later downplayed the effect of such ugliness on his decision to sign with the Phillies.
We don’t know Cole’s priority. We know he wants to win the World Series. But where? Sometime very soon Cole, as he did when he was a high school senior advised by Boras, will end his careful study and research and decide on the answer.