The baseball world will be focused on Southern California during next week’s Winter Meetings, but the Yankees headed west several days early to do some big-game hunting.
General manager Brian Cashman, manager Aaron Boone and new pitching coach Matt Blake were in California for the meetings, which were first reported by MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal in a story for The Athletic.
The meeting with Cole is said to have gone well, though no dollar figures were discussed. The Yankees, who have plenty of experience bidding on top free agents during Cashman’s tenure as GM, know the type of offer it will ultimately take to lure Cole -- an Orange County native who is believed to prefer a West Coast destination -- to New York. Although MLB Network insider Jon Heyman reported Wednesday that Cole assured the Yanks he has "no West Coast bias" during Tuesday's four-hour meeting. Yankees legend Andy Pettitte, who also spent time with the Astros during his illustrious career, was part of the Yankees' contingent that sat down with Cole, according to ESPN's Buster Olney.
The meeting with Strasburg is said to have gone well, too, per a source. They talked the New York market, the team and its philosophy as the Yankees gave the pitcher an extensive view of the organization. Exact dollars weren't discussed, but the pitching market was certainly referenced.
The Yankees’ rotation has depth with Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, J.A. Happ, Domingo German (who is facing a possible suspension under the Joint MLB-MLBPA Domestic Violence Policy) and Jordan Montgomery, but the addition of a bona fide ace such as Cole or Strasburg would make New York a prohibitive favorite in the American League next season.
It should also be noted that Tanaka and Paxton will be free agents at the end of the 2020 season, while Happ has a vesting option for 2021 which only kicks in if he throws 165 innings or makes 27 starts next year. The Yankees could be looking to fill as many as three spots in the rotation next offseason, so adding a big-time arm on a long-term deal this winter would help ease that pressure.
Cole is the prize of this year’s free-agent class, coming off a stellar season during which he went 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA and a Major League-leading 326 strikeouts in 33 starts, finishing second to Justin Verlander in AL Cy Young voting.
The Yankees have a history with Cole, whom they selected with the 28th overall pick in the 2008 Draft. Cole opted to pitch for UCLA, rocketing up the first round three years later as the Pirates selected him first overall in 2011.
Two years ago, the Yankees engaged with the Pirates in trade talks for Cole, but Pittsburgh opted to deal him to the Astros instead.
Strasburg was this year’s World Series MVP, finishing fifth in National League Cy Young voting after going 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA in 33 starts. The right-hander -- who, like Cole, was the first pick in the Draft, taken by the Nationals in 2009 -- went 5-0 with a 1.98 ERA in six postseason games (five starts), leading Washington to its first World Series title.
The Yankees haven’t made a nine-figure free-agent pitching signing since 2014, when they inked Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million pact. New York has shied away from handing out huge free-agent deals since that winter, when they also signed Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million contract.
The recent release of Ellsbury might play a role in the Yankees' pursuit of Cole or Strasburg, as the club does not intend to pay the outfielder the $26 million remaining on his contract due to what it claims was unauthorized treatment for his injuries.
The Yankees have been known to go on spending sprees, doling out $423.5 million to CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira after the 2008 season, then signing Tanaka, Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltrán for a combined $438 million prior to the 2014 campaign.
New York currently has approximately $137 million committed to nine players (Giancarlo Stanton, Tanaka, Happ, Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, DJ LeMahieu, Aaron Hicks, Severino and Adam Ottavino), while Paxton, Aaron Judge, Gary Sánchez, Tommy Kahnle, Gio Urshela, Chad Green, Montgomery, Luis Cessa and Jonathan Holder are all arbitration-eligible. Cot’s Baseball Contracts estimates those players will combine for about $33 million.
Brett Gardner is expected to return on a one-year deal worth about $10 million, which would put the Yankees’ payroll at roughly $180 million for 19 players. Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andújar, Luke Voit, Mike Ford, German and Mike Tauchman are all still in the pre-arbitration phase of their careers, so the cost for those players will be minimum.
That leaves room for a pitcher of Cole or Strasburg’s caliber, so the possibility of the Yankees making a significant signing of that nature certainly exists. The fact that the Yankees are sitting down with the two premier pitchers is a sign that they’re at least considering such a move.