MLB free agency: Every team could use Gerrit Cole; here's why the Angels need him more than other suitors
The Angels this offseason should be totally committed to landing the best free-agent pitcher on the market
The starting point for any discussion of Gerrit Cole's ongoing free agency should be this: any team can use a pitcher like Cole. The 29-year-old right-hander is coming off a 2019 season for the Astros in which he pitched to an AL-leading 2.50 ERA, which was good for an MLB-leading of 185. Cole also struck out an MLB-leading 326 batters in 212 1/3 innings. What bodes especially well for the future is that Cole in 2019 struck out 39.9 percent of opposing hitters. Among qualifiers, that's an all-time single season record.
He's got elite velocity, command of four to five pitches in a given start, and since arriving in Houston prior to the 2018 season he's boasted elite spin rate on his fastball and curve. Cole's also reached 200 innings in four of the last five seasons. In matters related, per MLB.com the Oliver projection system tabs Cole for a sub-3.00 ERA in each of the next seven seasons (mull that over for a moment). Throw in his relatively young age as free agent starters go, and he's a threat to sign the largest contract by a pitcher in MLB history. It'll be merited.
The price tag is notable, yes, and far too many teams these days are more concerned with the relatively modest luxury tax penalties than they are with fielding the best team possible. Even so, the market for Cole is going to be competitive, as it should be. Specifically, Cole in the early weeks of the offseason has been linked to the incumbent Astros, Yankees, Phillies, Dodgers, Angels, and darkhorse Rangers. Of these, the Angels need Cole the most.
To repeat: Any of the 30 MLB rosters is made better by the likes of Cole. There are no exceptions to this. Among reported suitors, the 106-win Dodgers need him, as do the 102-win Yankees, and AL-champion Astros. The Phillies badly need rotation help alongside Aaron Nola (or, in Cole's case, in front of Nola). None are as desperate as the Angels.
Consider that in 2019, the Angels ranked last in the AL in rotation ERA (yes, behind even the Orioles). They also ranked 14th in FIP, or , which is what a pitcher's -- or team's -- ERA would probably look like with league-average defensive support and neutral luck. The Halo rotation also ranked last in the AL in innings per start and a distant last in quality start percentage (they logged a quality start just 14 percent of the time, while the Tigers and Blue Jays were next worst at 25 percent). Suffice it to say, that's a dismal baseline heading into 2020.
There's some hope for internal improvement given that Shohei Ohtani is now far enough removed from Tommy John surgery to return to the mound. Assuming health and durability from Ohtani, however, would be imprudent. Andrew Heaney and Griffin Canning can be capable mid-rotation or back-end guys, and there's some upside to be found in Jose Suarez and Patrick Sandoval. If the aim is to contend, however, then there's nothing enviable about that arrangement. No aspiring contender is as desperate for Cole as the Angels are, and that's especially the case given that they share a division with the Astros and Athletics.
Let's consider their particulars. AL MVP Mike Trout is likely going to be in the discussion for greatest player ever once he's done, but to date he's played in just one postseason series. The Angels have failed time and again to put a contention-worthy roster around him. It's too much to say time is running out, but Trout is 28 and in recent years has shown an increasing propensity for injury. At some point, he's going to decline, and the Angels would do well to fully commit themselves to winning while he's still at or near his legendary peak. Similarly, shortstop Andrelton Simmons won't be the best defensive shortstop in baseball forever.
They've also brought in Joe Maddon as manager and Mickey Callaway as pitching coach, and those aren't moves you make if you're content with relevance that expires before the weather gets hot. Top prospect Jo Adell could arrive in 2020 and be the All-Star caliber outfield complement that Trout needs ( ). Some pieces are in place, and signing Cole would strike a direct and powerful blow against the Angels' most glaring weakness.
Cole's an Orange County native, and players typically don't need to be sold on the charms of playing in Southern California. All that said, the money will be the thing, and Cole as noted is going to command a lot of it. The good news is that team owner Arte Moreno says he'll increase payroll for the 2020 season. The Angels probably have about $60 million of space under the luxury tax threshold (not that an owner of Moreno's means and resources should be worried about that), so there's room to maneuver. Cole isn't the only roster need -- the Angels could also use a reliable No. 2 man behind Cole -- but he's the first and most essential order of business. Move aggressively and be responsive to the market, which is another way of saying, "Do what it takes to sign Gerrit Cole."
No team is more starved for elite run prevention and length in the rotation than the Angels, and no one in all of baseball -- free agent or otherwise -- promises more of that than Cole. It's on Moreno and GM Billy Eppler to work against the non-competitive headwinds that are too much with us in baseball right now and go and get the best talent available in the service of getting Trout and company back to the postseason. No owner and front office has a clearer mandate this winter.
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