Cole in spotlight as 2020 season approaches

February 6th, 2020

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Yankees gambled on as a first-round selection in the 2008 MLB Draft, then grumbled when the promising hurler made good on his college commitment to UCLA. Once Cole was an established big leaguer, New York attempted to trade for him nine years later, but came away empty-handed when the Pirates preferred a different offer from the Astros.

No wonder general manager Brian Cashman referred to Cole as his “great white whale,” one the Yankees finally landed by blowing the Angels and Dodgers out of the water with a landmark nine-year, $324 million pact. Now, as pitchers and catchers prepare to report to George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, all eyes will be on Cole and the right-hander’s mission to deliver World Series title No. 28 to The Bronx.

“I love it. It's what you play for,” Cole said. “There were a couple years in Pittsburgh where we just weren’t good as a club. It's just not fun; it's not what I envisioned. I want to compete every year for a championship, and I want to win a championship. I was a Yankee fan, man, and every year you have that expectation that they're going to be competing. It doesn't scare me. It’s what I dreamed of.”

Viewed as the final piece for a win-now franchise that has been knocking on the door for several seasons, Cole is switching sides after his Houston club ended New York’s season in the American League Championship Series. The bar is set incredibly high for the AL Cy Young Award runner-up, as managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said that the expectation is for Cole to celebrate multiple World Series championships during his time in pinstripes.

In pure pitching terms, Cole’s acquisition transformed the Yankees’ rotation from a potential liability into a strength, even with Wednesday’s development that left-hander could be sidelined until May or June following spinal surgery. The 29-year-old Cole paced the Majors with 326 strikeouts last season, finishing 20-5 with an AL-best 2.50 ERA in 33 regular-season starts.

Boone and the Yankees had the headache of preparing to face Cole in a postseason setting last October, when Houston handed him the ball for ALCS Game 3 at Yankee Stadium. Though it wasn’t his sharpest effort, Cole nevertheless delivered on that stage, silencing the Bombers with seven innings of four-hit ball while striking out seven against five walks. That contest was discussed during this past winter’s contract negotiations.

“We felt like had a pretty good plan, we just weren't able to take advantage of those couple of opportunities,” Boone said. “That has a lot to do with him being out there, and him being able to make pitches. It was a lot of fun to talk to him about how we looked at it, the reverence and respect he had for our lineup, and how he had to kind of navigate in that game. He's a special, special pitcher and a special guy.”

To a man, the travel contingent that jetted to the West Coast for preliminary talks with agent Scott Boras -- one that included retired hurler Andy Pettitte -- came away impressed by Cole’s intensity and the serious nature of his questions.

“He's willing to bet on himself,” Cashman said. “I don't think many high school kids being drafted in the first round by their childhood dream team … would say, ‘I'm going to college because it'll all work out.’ Those are examples of someone who's talking the talk and then shows he can walk the walk. You see how they react in the crazy environment of playoff baseball and World Series baseball, and listen, he has checked every box thus far.”

The Yankees’ sales pitch essentially informed Cole and his wife, Amy, that the Steinbrenner family was willing to do whatever it would take to ensure that his next start was in pinstripes.

“Unlike other top free agents in years past, I really felt that it would be a game-changer for us for a number of reasons,” Steinbrenner said. “Starting pitching, you obviously can't have enough of it. He’s unbelievably talented skill-wise, great makeup, very tough, very intelligent. He’s got an unbelievable work ethic, and he’s 29 years old. I mean, you put all those together and that's an opportunity any given year I would pursue if they were available.”

That total package is, the Yankees believe, one that will also fit seamlessly into their professional clubhouse. Cole pitched the equivalent of a perfect game during his formal Yankee Stadium introduction on Dec. 18, deftly handling the press while surprising his audience with a weather-faded piece of poster board from his childhood.

Beyond innings and strikeouts, Boone also believes that Cole will assist in filling whatever leadership void exists among the pitching staff following CC Sabathia’s retirement, a process that can begin on the sun-splashed fields of the Grapefruit League.

“I think he has intangibles that will not only allow him to thrive in there, but also have enough of a positive effect on what we do and our culture,” Boone said. “I don't want him to be forced into any sort of role. I want him to go in there and be himself.”