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. This time the New York Yankees made sure Gerrit Cole, their admitted “white whale” they have chased for 11 years, would not get away.
The Yankees won the wallet and the heart of Gerrit Cole. They forked over $324 million over nine years, enriching the righthanded free agent with $79 million more than the previous record money for a pitcher–a record which lasted all of one day, when the Nationals gave Stephen Strasburg $245 million over seven years.
Only hours before the Yankees closed the deal, a Dodgers source said, “Oh, we’re in it–strong.” True to a public pronouncement from agent Scott Boras, the Dodgers never got the sense from Cole, who grew up in Orange County, Calif., of a geographic preference. The Angels needed Cole even more than the Yankees and Dodgers but could not offer Cole what New York and Los Angeles could: a ready-made World Series contender. From start to finish, the Yankees were bound and determined to separate themselves from the field.
A source familiar with the final offers described the Dodgers’ bid as “relatively close” and “in that general area” of the winning offer, but that New York kept itself ahead in the negotiating game “with pay structure, opt-out, trade protection, etc.” The Yankees gave Cole an opt-out after the fifth year of the deal. New York not only kept sweetening the pot, it also won the subtleties of the recruiting game.
Under president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers never have recruited a free agent to the team with more than the $55 million they gave centerfielder A.J. Pollack last year. Under GM Brian Cashman, the Yankees borrowed from their well-worn playbook of how to recruit. As they did with CC Sabathia, and with the help of former Yankee pitcher Andy Pettitte, they appealed to Cole’s competitive nature by playing up the challenge of pitching in New York. New pitching coach Matt Blake, 33, a guru on the analytical frontier of pitching, clicked with the data-hungry Cole, 29, on an intellectual basis.
The source said, “It came down to winning, to organizational culture (intellectual stimulation) and to the actual contract.” It wasn’t one specific item that clinched the deal, the source said, but the Yankees “created enough clear separation on the contract.” This time, they would not be deterred on getting their man.
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 had 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 was 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.
Boras’s crew also came away from that meeting understanding how much the Yankees hungered for another World Series title, having gone the great sum in Yankee years of a decade without one. They knew Hal Steinbrenner wanted a championship to call his own.
But Cole’s decision came down to where he wanted to live and pitch. Boras made it clear that geography was 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. And now Orange Country’s Cole is in the Bronx.
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 knew Cole wants to win the World Series. But where? Just as he did when he was a high school senior advised by Boras, Cole, after careful study and research, decided on the answer. He chose New York for its money, its history and its proximity to the World Series. It took 11 years and three tries, but the Yankees got their white whale.