When the Yankees badly want a player, they usually end up getting that player.
If there is any lesson to be learned from the Gerrit Cole negotiations, it is that the Yankees will still go above and beyond for any player the organization thinks they need. While there was some internal debate regarding Manny Machado last winter, there seemingly was no debate this year: The moment Cole became a free agent, the Yankees were going to go hard after him. It was a similar situation with CC Sabathia after the 2008 season. The Yankees zeroed in on a primary target, made an offer that nobody else was going to want to touch, and reeled in the big fish. Cole is this winter's big fish.
The profile Cole brings to the Yankees is incredible. With a change in approach and mechanics, Cole pitched to a 2.68 ERA (2.67 FIP; 164 ERA+) over the past two seasons with a 2.4 BB/9 and 13.1 K/9 over 412.2 innings pitched. The Astros encouraged Cole to use his four-seamer up in the zone instead of the two-seamer he threw in Pittsburgh. In his final season with the Pirates, Cole threw his sinking fastball 18.1% of the time. After throwing it 3% of the time in his first season with Houston in 2018, he dropped the usage down to 0.4% in 2019. The Astros wanted Cole to get away from the "pitch to contact" philosophy in Pittsburgh, telling him to instead aim for "no contact". It worked perfectly and turned Cole into one of the most desirable free agents in the history of the game. It should be noted that Cole was not a bad pitcher in Pittsburgh, just a different one. He once finished 4th in the Cy Young vote (and 19th in the MVP vote) while in Pittsburgh. He compiled a 3.50 ERA (3.27 FIP) in 782.1 innings while he was a Pirate. He simply didn't strike out as many hitters in his Pittsburgh days, which was likely a strategy. This isn't a mediocre pitcher who suddenly became a stud overnight. This was an already solid pitcher who turned himself into an ace.
Cole is not just about power, however. He also has exceptional command of his power stuff, and that is why he has been a special pitcher the past two seasons. He can command every pitch in his arsenal and his competitiveness can not be overstated. Make no mistake about it: Cole did not have his best stuff in Game 3 at Yankee Stadium. He almost gave up a huge home run to Didi Gregorius in that game. However, he battled, pitched better as the game went on, and ended up giving up only one run over seven innings despite allowing five walks. This is what ace pitchers do: When they are missing their best stuff, they still find a way to eat innings and give their team a chance to win the game.
Many will argue that the Yankees did not lose the 2019 ALCS because of their pitching. This is true – the Yankees' bats went cold, especially after Game 1, while the pitching held the Astros mostly in check. However, looking at one series of six games is never a reason to conclude something. Aaron Boone was consistently going to his bullpen. Luis Severino was coming off of an injury and was unable to provide length. James Paxton struggled early in Game 2. The Game 4 "bullpen game" was a mess. Not having a durable ace to turn to certainly hurt the team's chances to win the series. This is true regardless of the number of runs the pitching staff gave up during the series. If your team is slumping at the plate, one way to combat that is by throwing an ace on the mound to completely shut down the opposition. Cole can provide that in addition to giving the bullpen much-needed rest every time he starts. It doesn't matter how well the Yankees pitched as a collective unit in the playoffs – you do need those starts where one pitcher is essentially the entire unit, and Cole is equipped to do that.
As for the contract, I don't know when baseball fans will learn the simple truth: If you want a star free agent, be prepared to hand out more years than you would otherwise feel comfortable with. The Yankees would have loved to give Cole a 5-year, $180M contract – but Cole is never going for that. The MLBPA would hate him and he is lessening his worth on the market. Signing top free agents is supposed to hurt. It is supposed to stretch you beyond what you are comfortable with doing. If you want Cole to pitch for your favorite team, expect the consequences of having your jaw drop to the ground when you calculate how much he is going to make per pitch. As fans, I am not even sure why we care, to be honest. The money flow always goes somewhere. The Yankees, or any owner for that matter, can choose to pocket that cash. They can choose to use it however they wish – including payroll.
There is more to this deal than simply signing one of baseball's best pitchers. Cole may be able to help Severino take the next step in his quest to be a consistently elite pitcher. The Yankees have several young pitching prospects who are starting to make their way up to the big leagues. Having a pitcher like Cole around to work with them can only help. He has the experience of struggling at the big league level. He has the experience of being shown new ways to do things even after he established himself as a big-league pitcher. Matt Blake is getting fanfare as the Yankees' forward-thinking pitching coach. Young pitchers can take in everything he has to offer while talking to Cole, who can explain how analytics and working on his mechanics changed him from a very good MLB pitcher to a great MLB pitcher.
Are there drawbacks, beyond the usual disclaimer that every pitcher is an injury risk? Not really. Like many pitchers in 2019, Cole suffered a home run spike in his profile, giving up 29 (16.9% of his flyballs went for home runs) over 212.1 innings after giving up only 19 over 200.1 innings the year before. Even before juiced balls, power pitchers would give up their share of home runs. The concern here should be minimal, even while pitching half the time in Yankee Stadium. While some may fear that he will revert to his "very good" days in Pittsburgh vs. his insane days in Houston, keep in mind that Cole is not going to suddenly go back to the style of pitching he used in Pittsburgh. You can throw away everything you know about his Pirates' days because he may as well have been a different pitcher back then.
In a move that will shock nobody, the Yankees re-signed Brett Gardner to a one-year contract with a 2021 option. The option was originally reported as a $20M option though that was thankfully corrected. Gardner provides a stabilizing veteran presence to the clubhouse. While his postseason performance throughout his career leaves something to be desired, there is little doubt that he has been a solid contributor to the franchise with his ability to play defense and hit just enough to be a starting-caliber player. I think he is best served as a 4th OF nowadays, but the Yankees had to squeeze more than that out of him in 2019, and he delivered.
In a move that shocked some, the Yankees did allow Didi Gregorius to move on to the Phillies. With Gleyber Torres capable of playing shortstop every day, the Yankees decided it was time to move on from Gregorius, who struggled somewhat after coming back from surgery in 2019. The Yankees let us know their intentions with the shortstop right after the season ended when they didn't slap a QO on him. Given what he signed for with the Phillies, the organization was right to assume that Didi would have jumped on the Qualifying Offer if it was there. The Yankees knew they could have him for a year, so it shouldn't be shocking when you find out they didn't sign him for a year. Gregorius was a solid Yankee who had a tough task when he was traded to the team: Take over for Derek Jeter. We all remember the early days of the transition when he had trouble both at the plate and in the field for weeks before he started to settle in. The offense didn't start coming for a while, but once it did, he became one of the top shortstops in baseball. The Phillies are hoping that he will return to that one year removed from the rehab from his surgery.
They also lost backup catcher Austin Romine, who will get a chance at more playing time in Detroit. Romine's hard work put him in this position. He was a light-hitting backup catcher with injury concerns when he won the job with the Yankees a few years ago. He transformed himself into a solid offensive backup catcher who grades out well defensively in some metrics, though not in others. A good season in Detroit can lead to an even bigger payday next winter, as teams always need catchers. Romine gives you the vibe that he is going to be in this league for a long while. Once a backup catcher breaks through and establishes his worth in the big leagues, he can hang around for a long time. The Yankees have Kyle Higashioka, a catcher with a good defensive reputation and home run power to serve as their backup if they don't sign someone else (such as Martin Maldonado). They will need to build up some Triple-A depth as well. I was surprised when they didn't look for a catcher in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft.
The Yankees will have to make roster space for Cole and Brett Gardner, with a trade the most likely way they will be able to do that. Brian Cashman loves to trade fringe 40-man prospects away for players who are years away from contributing. They did this at the trade deadline this past season when they traded Joe Harvey (who was on the 40-man roster) to the Colorado Rockies for Alfredo Garcia, a pitcher who was years away from needing to be protected on the 40-man roster. They may make a move like that or look to trade an asset for international bonus pool money. They lost a chunk of their pool money for signing Cole. More significant options (packaging some 40-man roster players for another MLB asset) is also likely on the table, as is a salary dump trade of J.A. Happ. You can't delay free agent signing announcements forever, so the Yankees will need to do something soon.
In other news that is minor league centric, the Yankees lost Rony Garcia to the Detroit Tigers in the Rule 5 draft. He was the first player chosen in the draft. The 6'3" RHP made it up to Trenton during the 2019 season, pitching to a 4.44 ERA in 105.1 innings with a solid 8.9 K/9. Garcia has the makings of a solid MLB pitcher, though his 33.8% GB rate at Trenton is at least concerning. It was surprising that the Yankees decided to hang on to a reliever like Brooks Kriske over a potential starter like Garcia, but they have their reasons for that. Kriske could be a big-league bullpen contributor in 2020 (you don't store relievers on the 40-man unless you think that reliever is close to contributing). The Tigers should be able to keep Garcia unless he completely falls apart – if they can't, he has to be offered back to the Yankees (after being exposed to waivers). When you are a minor leaguer, sometimes you just want a chance. Garcia has developed enough where a team wants to give him that chance.
The other prospects were lost during the minor league phase: RHP Raynel Espinal, RHP Hobie Harris, RHP Will Carter, and IF Wendell Rijo. Espinal was an innings-eating swingman for the Yankees organization. 12 of his 18 appearances (he dealt with some injuries) in 2019 were starts. He is entering his age 28 season so there shouldn't be a reason for the Yankees to be concerned. His ability to eat innings could give him some long-relief value. He was taken by the Red Sox but one just gets the impression that for him to get any kind of look, he will likely have to end up in a smaller market. Carter was once an intriguing prospect known for his insane ability to keep the ball on the ground but has faded as a prospect recently. Harris belongs in the HOF on his name alone and could see himself making some MLB relief appearances at some point. Rijo was once acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers in a trade for Erik Kratz. The smallish utility player bounced around between three Yankees' levels in 2019, hitting .258/.325/.438 in 386 plate appearances. He has a little speed and positional flexibility, which opens the door for him to be a "shuttle" MLB player someday. Suffice to say, none of these four prospects are likely going to hurt the Yankees in any significant way. Good luck to all of them though, as it is always fun to follow all Yankees' prospects.
The Yankees have also signed CF Thomas Milone to a minor league contract. The former third-round pick by Tampa is known for his ability to play the outfield, though offense has not been easy to come by (if it was, he wouldn't have been so easily picked up!) The 24-year old has yet to play above the Double-A level. He destroyed A+ ball pitching in 2019, but that was hardly surprising as he also had A+ ball experience in 2016 and 2017 before playing a full season in Double-A in 2018. This is an organizational depth move that could turn into more. Never put anything past the Yankees' ability to find diamonds in the rough. Don't be surprised if they see something in Milone's swing that they thing can be corrected. For now, his defense and speed would be his way of getting to the big leagues. With Aaron Hicks on the injured like and Mike Tauchman/Brett Gardner the only 40-man roster CF options (unless you wish to count Aaron Judge and Tyler Wade in the depth mix), it made sense for them to target a true center fielder on a minor league contract.
Bottom Line: The Yankees had to have Cole. There is no reason for any fan of the franchise to be down on this signing. He was the perfect free agent to splurge on and they made sure he wasn't going to get out of their grasp this time around. He was drafted by the Yankees but turned them down to go to UCLA. When the Pirates put him on the market, the Yankees were reluctant to trade Miguel Andujar as part of the package. This time around, they held the hammer: It would only take money to get him to the Bronx. They had the money to give. He will now put on the pinstripes.
The Yankees could have moved on from Gardner but they needed a center fielder. I don't know if they make a huge effort to keep him if Aaron Hicks was healthy, but we will never know the answer to that since Hicks will not be healthy to start the season. A healthy Hicks puts Gardner in the same spot as Didi was – the Yankees having players who can play the positions he does. We'll never know, and that is OK.
The Yankees likely knew that Garcia was going to be lost but decided that pitchers like Chance Adams and Stephen Tarpley are more valuable at this time than Garcia is. Time will tell. I doubt he makes it back to the Yankees unless the Tigers don't like what they see. The minor league phase players who were lost are easily replaced – no need to fret there. Millone gives the Yankees what they need for further center field depth.
This has been a strong off-season for the Yankees. They might look for a left-handed bench bat as they are lacking in left-handed pop. They might look to bolster an already strong bullpen, though one has to wonder if trading assets for a big reliever like Josh Hader is worth it. You can never have enough pitching, but that doesn't mean you should move considerable assets to improve an area of deep strength. They may be better off dealing fewer assets for a reliever that may not quite be in Hader's class but can still help fill in one of the remaining roster spots. We are over three months away from Opening Day, so we should see more moves before the first pitch is thrown in Baltimore.