Cole set to be cream of upcoming free-agent crop

September 25th, 2019

As the 2019 regular season comes to an end and fans start to think about the offseason, we're taking a closer look at some of the most prominent players eligible for free agency.

Name: Gerrit Cole
Position: Right-handed pitcher
Team: Astros
Age (as of Opening Day 2020): 29
2019 stats: 19-5, 2.52 ERA, 207.1 IP, 316 K, 0.888 WHIP

Cole is the best pitcher available on this year’s free-agent market, and depending on who you talk to, quite possibly the crown jewel of the entire class. Whether you prefer Cole or third baseman Anthony Rendon, it’s quite clear that the two players -- who are both represented by agent Scott Boras -- will be cashing in with big deals in the coming months.

Even if Stephen Strasburg opts out of his current contract with the Nationals, Cole will be the top starter out there.

Likely suitors

Angels: Los Angeles has the best player in the game, but Mike Trout has appeared in just three postseason games during the first eight-plus years of his career. Adding an ace of Cole’s stature would be a good step in trying to get back to October. The Angels already have $115 million committed to five players next season, but Andrelton Simmons and Zack Cozart will be entering the final year of their respective deals, while Albert Pujols will have two years left on his contract. As an added bonus, Cole grew up in Orange County and played college ball at UCLA, so this is as close to home as it gets for him.

Astros: Houston is committed to more than $150 million for eight players next season, which doesn’t even take arbitration raises for George Springer, Carlos Correa and Roberto Osuna into account. It’s unlikely that the Astros will have the financial flexibility to bring Cole back. That said, you can’t rule them out entirely, as they can always make other moves to free up payroll if they decide retaining Cole is the priority.

Cardinals: St. Louis tried unsuccessfully to acquire an ace during the summer, and while Cole will cost a fortune, the Cardinals would rather spend money than trade away top prospects. Rendon also figures to be of interest to St. Louis, which would be unlikely to shell out big bucks for both free agents.

Padres: San Diego has surprised the industry in each of the past two offseasons with the signings of Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado, so why not Cole, too? The Padres have plenty of strong, young pitching, but adding an ace such as Cole would give the rotation a leader for the young pitchers to follow.

Phillies: Was last winter’s signing of Bryce Harper just the beginning of a spending spree? Philadelphia made big moves to bring in Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura and more for 2019, but the team didn’t meet its lofty goals. Pairing Cole with Aaron Nola atop the rotation would thrust those expectations even higher, though it’s possible the big outlay they made for Jake Arrieta two winters ago -- which hasn’t panned out -- might give them pause.

Yankees: Following the 2008 season, the Yankees shelled out $161 million to sign CC Sabathia, giving him what was (at the time) the biggest pitching contract in history. Earlier that year, New York selected Cole in the first round of the Draft, but he shunned their offer to play for UCLA. The Yankees figure to take aim at Cole again; will they land him this time?

Scout's take

“Cole’s four-pitch mix is a power repertoire that features top end velo and a swing-and-miss slider. He is an above-average strike thrower who has mastered sequencing with intent and conviction since arriving in Houston. For me, that is what has propelled his performance forward over the last two years. Gerrit is an athletic workhorse under the age of 30 who is ultra-competitive and appears to have the intangibles necessary to front a rotation by himself. He has paired high-end performance and bulk-inning production over the last several years.

“The concern will be what the impact of that type of wear and tear might be over a long-term commitment. His physicality and athleticism both indicate that a breakdown isn’t likely in the near-term, but the ultimate question for decision-makers will be: Just how many years and dollars are you willing to bet on the long-term health of his right arm?”

Buyer beware

There aren’t many red flags with Cole following his two brilliant seasons in Houston, but here are two things for a new club to consider. First, the Astros have had the magic touch with pitchers in recent years, so will Cole thrive to the same extent elsewhere? (Charlie Morton’s success with the Rays this year after leaving Houston might alleviate some of those worries.) Second, Cole has had the good fortune of pitching next to Justin Verlander, whose presence takes a lot of pressure off of his fellow starters. If Cole signs somewhere to be the unquestioned No. 1 (as he was in Pittsburgh), what type of impact will that have on him?

For comp's sake

Cole’s second half has given him as much momentum as an impending free agent could hope for, evoking memories of David Price’s memorable run with the Blue Jays during the final two months of 2015. Price went 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA in 11 starts for Toronto, helping him land a record seven-year, $217 million pact from the Red Sox that offseason. Price’s deal remains the biggest for any pitcher in history, but Cole -- who is 10-0 with a 1.49 ERA in his past 12 starts -- is likely to set a new ceiling with his upcoming deal.

Boras figures to take aim at both the biggest overall contract ever given to a starter ($217 million), as well as the highest average annual value ($33 million), setting the likely price for Cole in the seven-year, $235 million range.