But now, with Strasburg having landed a massive, seven-year, $245 million contract to remain with the Washington Nationals and with Cole’s market suddenly coming into clearer view, we are about to see how different their cases were at their cores all along.
Strasburg’s new deal with the Nationals — which sent a jolt through baseball’s annual winter meetings Monday — set a record for a pitcher, blowing away David Price’s $217 million deal with the Boston Red Sox in 2015. But when Cole signs his contract in the coming days — perhaps by the end of the meetings, with the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels the front-runners — it will almost certainly put Strasburg’s deal in a distant second place.
No one knows precisely what Cole’s price tag will end up being, but given Strasburg’s stunning terms, few in the industry would be shocked if it started with a three.
Cole, 29, has the benefit of being two years younger than Strasburg, with nearly 250 fewer big league innings and none of the injury baggage of the latter — which would make it reasonable to expect his new contract to exceed the seven years Strasburg received from the Nationals.
Cole is also seen throughout the industry as the slightly more dominant pitcher of the two, with his 2019 numbers for the Houston Astros — a 2.50 ERA, 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings and 7.4 wins above replacement (per FanGraphs) — beating Strasburg’s single-season career bests. Both undoubtedly earned themselves untold tens of millions of dollars with their performances this October, with Strasburg going 5-0 with a 1.98 ERA on his way to winning World Series MVP honors and Cole going 4-1 with a 1.72 ERA.
But even more than their respective talents and track records, Cole’s market, it is clear now, was different than Strasburg’s from the start.
While Strasburg took meetings this winter with the Yankees, Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers, there was never any indication he was seriously contemplating leaving the Nationals, nor any indication the Nationals were seriously considering a different free agent starting pitcher. His remaining in Washington — his adopted hometown, having moved his family there a year ago from his native San Diego — was the closest thing to a fait accompli as is possible in the high-stakes, high-dollar world of elite free agency.
“I think some players would want to listen more” to other teams’ pitches, agent Scott Boras said Monday. “But in Stephen’s case, and in the Nationals’ case, they have this bridge of trust and understanding that was based from long ago.”
Cole, by contrast, is a free agent in the purest sense of the term, his market wide open, stretching from coast to coast and involving some of the game’s deepest-pocketed teams. Despite his decided geographical bent — he, like Strasburg, was raised in Southern California — he has made it clear that while his choice might be informed by geography, it won’t be decided by it.
Cole’s market is believed to include not only the Angels and Yankees but the Dodgers and perhaps the Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers as well. We are also at the point — with the offers beginning to arrive at the table — where, frequently, a Boras negotiation is all of a sudden said to be joined by a “mystery team” or three.
Yet it is difficult not to see the Yankees as the clear front-runners now, after various reports said they are preparing, or have already delivered, a mammoth offer for Cole — whom they have coveted since at least 2008, when they drafted him out of Orange Lutheran High only to see him honor a commitment to UCLA instead.
Having largely sat out the past few free agent markets while focusing on re-signing their own players and trading for other significant pieces, the Yankees are both highly motivated (by having gone 10 years without an American League pennant) and financially positioned (with only $89.7 million committed toward their 2021 payroll and $51.3 million toward 2022) to make a significant investment this winter.
When the Yankees went to great lengths to get their payroll below the luxury-tax threshold in 2018, thus resetting their tax rate to the lowest level, it was widely viewed as a precursor to a major play for one of the premier members of the storied 2018-19 free agent class headed by Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Instead, after they largely ignored Harper and Machado — both of whom waited until late February to sign — it now appears the Yankees were merely marshaling their resources ahead of Cole’s initial foray into free agency.
It has been nearly six years — Masahiro Tanaka in January 2014 — since the Yankees signed a free agent to a nine-figure deal. Tanaka was also the last free agent pitcher they committed to for seven years. They have never gone to eight. A deal for Cole, clearly, would require General Manager Brian Cashman — who has preached financial restraint and efficiency in recent years — to go well beyond his point of comfort.
A few days before departing the East Coast for the winter meetings, Cashman was rappelling down a 22-story building in Connecticut — a December tradition he started several years ago — when he saw a sign in an office window, positioned so that Cashman couldn’t miss it: “Sign Gerrit Cole,” it said.
As this free agent market begins to pick up speed and momentum in a way unseen in many Decembers, that is precisely what Cashman is trying to do.