The biggest free agent domino fell late Tuesday night when Gerrit Cole and the Yankees agreed to a record-setting nine-year, $324 million deal. Reports in recent days suggested the Yankees were going all out in their pursuit of the 29-year-old, and when the Yankees flex their buying muscle, all other teams wither before them.
They might want to begin cowering, too. The Yankees won 103 games last year with virtually no contributions from ace Luis Severino. Not only will Severino be back in 2020, but he'll now be playing second fiddle to the best pitcher in all of baseball.
You heard me. Cole laid claim to that title with an obscenely productive second half in which he put together a 1.79 ERA over 14 starts, including nine of seven innings or more and 12 with double-digit strikeouts. His K/9 rate over his final nine starts, all of which yielded double-digit strikeout totals, was 16.1.
It was already becoming clear that Cole was a better pitcher percentage-wise than either Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander. He ranked first among qualifiers in swinging-strike rate this year and first in xFIP by nearly half a run. The biggest advantage Scherzer and Verlander had over him was workload, the ability to deliver ace numbers in a volume that simply didn't compare.
But again, nine of Cole's final 14 starts were seven innings or more. That's compared to six of his first 20 and 11 of 32 in his first year with the Astros. And since he was only more effective while doing it, it opens the door for it becoming the norm. Add the age difference -- the fact Scherzer and Verlander are both on the wrong side of 35 while Cole has yet to turn 30 -- and most analysts had already come to agree Cole needed to be the first pitcher off the board in 2020.
Going to the Yankees won't change that.
Sure, there's the short porch in right field, the ease with which left-handed batters can put the ball over the fence in an environment where everyone who's anyone is looking to do just that. Cole doesn't exactly excel at home run prevention either, his HR/9 rate this year ranking in the middle of the pack. But you know what? He had a 2.64 FIP and 2.48 xFIP anyway. He's so effective at missing bats and limiting baserunners that the impact of the home runs is negligible, with any increase unlikely to make a substantive difference.
Yeah, but didn't the Astros piece together this world-beating mower of lineups with all of their data crunching and arsenal reshaping? It's true they did what they do and taught Cole how to maximize his pitches, emphasizing the four-seamer and slider and ditching the contact-generating two-seamer. But he was the first pick in the 2008 draft before they ever got their hands on him, and by all accounts, he's a studious worker with a talent for self-assessment and a drive to improve. Read any of the profiles The Athletic has done on him over the past few months and ask yourself if he sounds like a guy who'll forget the lessons he learned in Houston. We just saw Charlie Morton take his to Tampa Bay with him, remember.
And the supporting cast? I mentioned the Yankees won 103 games without Severino or Cole this year. They have a lineup full of mashers -- more than they can fit in a starting lineup any given day -- and a high-dollar bullpen that features no fewer than five relievers with closer stuff. They're a lead-grabbing, lead-preserving machine that's biggest weakness this season was what transpired over the first six innings. You put Cole in that scenario, and he might win 25 games.
An exaggeration? Well, the odds are certainly against it. But the point is he's in an environment where a pitcher like him -- one whose talent rises above the rest of the league and whose weaknesses are virtually undetectable -- should put up the sort of numbers that make Fantasy players turn cartwheels.
It's clearer now than ever he should be the sixth player off the board in standard 5x5 categories leagues (after Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Ronald Acuna, Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts, in some order), and in Head-to-Head points leagues, there's a case to be made for him going No. 1 overall. I'm not willing to make it, but it's there.