By Ronald Blum
The New York Yankees landed the biggest prize of the free agent market, adding Gerrit Cole to their rotation with a record $324 million, nine-year contract on Tuesday night, a person familiar with the deal told The Associated Press.
The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the agreement had not been announced.
Cole’s deal established marks for pitchers in total dollars, topping the $245 million, seven-year contract Stephen Strasburg finalized a day earlier to remain with the World Series champion Washington Nationals.
Its $36 million average is a record for any player, beating the $35.5 million in outfielder Mike Trout’s $426.5 million, 12-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels that started last season. Cole gets an even $36 million annually and can opt out after the 2024 season. He also has a full no-trade provision.
Agent Scott Boras negotiated the deals for Cole and Strasburg.
A 29-year-old right-hander, Cole was baseball’s most dominant pitcher for much of 2019 and helped the Houston Astros come within one win of their second World Series title in three seasons.
“Obviously, when you are talking about a player at the level of Gerrit Cole, in a lot of ways that’s a game-changing type talent,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said earlier in the day. “This is a guy that’s really hungry, really driven.”
New York has not won the World Series since 2009 and sought an ace to head a rotation that already includes Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton and J.A. Happ or Domingo Germán, who may be suspended at the season’s start under baseball’s domestic violence policy.
General manager Brian Cashman executed the move out of his same playbook he used after the 2008 season, when he gave CC Sabathia a $161 million, seven-year deal to lead a staff and establish a clubhouse presence.
Cole will compliment a young core of hitters that includes Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres and Gary Sánchez, entering a window when New York thinks it can compete consistently for championships.
Cole was drafted by the Yankees in the first round with the 28th overall pick out of high school in 2008 but chose to go to UCLA, then was drafted first overall by Pittsburgh three years later. Traded after the 2017 season, he transformed his career in two seasons with the Astros.
After going 59-42 with a 3.50 ERA in five seasons with the Pirates, he blossomed under the analytics-focused staff of the Astros. He increased the usage of his four-seam fastball and curveball, virtually dropping his two-seam sinker while attacking the top of the strike zone more often.
He went 15-5 with a 2.88 ERA in 2018, then 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA a major league-high 326 strikeouts last season, finishing second to teammate Justin Verlander in AL Cy Young Award balloting. Just 4-5 in late May, he went 19-0 over his next 25 starts before losing the World Series opener. He won Game 5 and was available to pitch in Game 7 but was never used.
Cashman visited Cole and wife Amy in California last week, bringing along Boone, new pitching coach Matt Blake and special adviser Andy Pettitte.
“We’re just trying to make sure that we educate the player and his family about our culture, everything, what we are,” Cashman said.
Cashman said he realized the risk of a lengthy, marketplace-driven free agent contract. Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who missed the last two seasons because of injuries, was released this month with one guaranteed season left in a $153 million, seven-year contract.
But Cashman pointed to deals that worked, such as Derek Jeter’s $189 million contract that covered 2001-10, pitcher Mike Mussina’s $88.5 million agreement from 2001-06 and Sabathia’s big deal.
”Clearly the longer the deals, the more risk you have,” he said. “There’s been examples where we’ve done long long-term deals and it’s backfired and hasn’t paid off. We’ve done long-term deals where we’re we had benefits.”