Angels undaunted in pursuit of Cole

December 10th, 2019

SAN DIEGO -- The market for a top-tier starter became much clearer on the first day of the Winter Meetings on Monday, as right-hander Stephen Strasburg agreed to a seven-year, $245 million contract with the Nationals.

The Angels were interested in Strasburg, but more as a Plan B with right-hander as their top target. Cole, though, is expected to command an even bigger deal than Strasburg’s record contract for a pitcher, as it could reach the $300 million threshold with the Yankees and Angels considered the two frontrunners to land Cole. So now there’s even more pressure for the Angels to land Cole, especially considering Strasburg and right-hander Zack Wheeler are off the market.

Angels general manager Billy Eppler, however, downplayed the impact of Strasburg signing when meeting with reporters Monday evening.

"I don’t have any thoughts on that," Eppler said. "There are talented pitchers off the board. Every team has their own sense of criteria and circumstances and things like that. I caution that reacting to one event changes things or gives people different perspective. I don’t know that’s always the case in markets."

But Angels manager Joe Maddon confirmed the club had separate meetings with Cole, Strasburg and Wheeler, indicating that they are serious about improving their rotation. He also said he believes owner Arte Moreno is fully devoted to putting a winning product on the field in 2020.

“There's no question he's committed," Maddon said. "Right now, it seems like the dominos are falling more quickly than they have in the past. I don't know if that's a surprise or not, but we somehow have to grab some of these dominos right now and figure it out. But he's definitely not just saying that. He's definitely all-in."

Cole, 29, could sign during the Winter Meetings, which run through Thursday, and is looking for an eight- to 10-year deal, according to reports. Cole is nearly two years younger than Strasburg and has no injury history, while Strasburg notably had Tommy John surgery in 2010. Agent Scott Boras represents both players but wouldn’t answer questions about Cole during a press conference for Strasburg on Monday. Boras will meet with the media on Tuesday.

The Yankees are viewed as the Angels’ top competition for Cole, while the Dodgers are also interested in the Orange County native. If the offers from the Angels and Yankees are similar, it could come down to personal preference for Cole, as he could head west home and play for the hometown Angels, or go east to play with a ready-made contender in the Yankees, who won 103 games last year.

Maddon said he was impressed by Cole in their meeting and how direct he was in his questions about the Angels, who are coming off a 90-loss season and made the postseason just once during this decade in 2014. Maddon believes the Angels’ strong core of Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani is a selling point for free agents and he’s set on contending in his first year at the helm.

"He's very bright, he's not afraid to ask you a question," Maddon said of Cole. "And he has definite ideas on what it takes to be successful, and it's really apparent in his game also. This guy really knows what he wants to do and how he wants to do it, and what you saw in the World Series was no joke and was not an accident. He was prepared to do that. So I really enjoyed the conversation. I really enjoyed his intellect. Hopefully, I'll get to enjoy it more consistently every fourth or fifth day."

If the Angels don’t land Cole it would be a major blow to their aspirations in 2020 and beyond, as there are no other starting pitchers of his caliber available. But the Angels have checked in on just about every free-agent starter, per Eppler, and have been linked to other veteran free agents such as lefties Hyun-Jin Ryu and Madison Bumgarner. As far as going the trade route, lefty Robbie Ray could be made available by the D-backs, but there don’t appear to be any aces on the trade market.

The Angels do have flexibility both with their payroll and with prospects, however, especially considering they only have Albert Pujols, Justin Upton and Trout signed beyond the 2020 season. If they don’t get Cole, they could become more aggressive in their pursuit of catching help and would likely target multiple starting pitchers in that scenario.

“We can do a number of things,” Eppler said. “It’s just when that right opportunity crosses our path to take full advantage of it and know that we have a couple different avenues to get those opportunities and bring them in the door, hopefully.”