Cole the perfect player at perfect time for Yanks

December 16th, 2019

SAN DIEGO -- This time, it was different for the Yankees. was that perfect fit that comes along every decade or so. They'd passed on other big names in recent years, including and . Nothing personal. Sometimes, it was timing; other times, the market.

From the moment general manager Brian Cashman telephoned agent Scott Boras to begin discussions that would result in Cole agreeing to a record-setting nine-year, $324 million deal late Tuesday, he made it clear that Cole was that generational player the Yankees would move heaven and earth to sign.

If Cole had signed elsewhere -- and virtually everyone in the industry believed he would end up in his native Southern California -- it would simply be a personal choice. It wouldn't be about the most money or the best chance to win.

The Yankees hadn't signed the clear No. 1 free-agent pitcher since giving CC Sabathia a seven-year, $161 million deal on December 10, 2008. Similarities? At the time, Sabathia seemed inclined to return to Southern California until the Yankees gave him the recruiting pitch to end all recruiting pitches.

They compelled him to envision what it would be like to play for the most famous and successful sports franchise on earth. They showed him that the Yankees spare no expense -- not just in putting together rosters, but in medical care, player comforts, etc.

And of course, that tradition. Sabathia won 19 games and threw 230 innings that first season in New York. In five postseason starts, he had a microscopic 1.98 ERA and helped the Yankees win their 27th World Series title.

During Sabathia's 11 seasons, the Yankees would win more games than any other team in baseball (1,024) and go to the postseason eight times. In Sabathia's first four seasons in New York, he was everything the Yankees hoped for, going 74-29 and averaging 226 innings and 205 strikeouts.

Now with Sabathia having retired after 19 seasons, Cole may have reminded them of the big lefty. Sabathia was 28 when he joined the Yankees, a year younger than Cole is now. In other ways, though, they are similar. Both are ferocious competitors who pride themselves on being at their best when the stakes are the highest and the lights the brightest.

In two seasons with the Astros, Cole was 35-10 with a 2.68 ERA. He averaged 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings and less than one baserunner per inning. He had at least 10 strikeouts in 21 of his 33 starts in 2019, and as's Sarah Langs pointed out, the Yankees' single-season record is nine by David Cone in 1998. Cole's 97.1-mph fastball average was the second-highest in the game, and the seven scoreless innings he dealt against the Yankees in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series helped Houston return to the World Series for the second time in three years.

Astros manager AJ Hinch said removing Cole from any game was among the most difficult things he'd done. He recalled a game in Oakland when he walked to the mound and wanted the baseball, explaining that he liked a certain relief pitcher's breaking pitch against the hitter in the on-deck circle.

"I got this," Cole said.

Hinch returned to the dugout and watched Cole strike out the hitter on a curveball. When Cole stepped into the dugout after the inning, he said something like, "I've got a curveball, too."

Some will question the wisdom of giving a 29-year-old pitcher a nine-year contract (and an opt out after the 2024 season). Yes, there's some risk.

But what the Yankees also just did was put the best pitcher in baseball atop their rotation and position themselves to win their first World Series since 2009.

Cole had said that the No. 1 thing he was seeking in free agency was a chance to win. Yes, he got $324 million. But he's that rare athlete at the pinnacle of his career, and because of that, he could probably have dictated the terms of his deal. When all was said and done, the Yankees convinced him that this was the right place and the right time.

He'd grown up a Yankee fan, but didn't sign with them when they drafted him out of high school in 2008. As an 11-year-old, he attended the 2001 Yankees-D-backs World Series Game 7 in Phoenix and was photographed holding a sign that read, "Yankee Fan Today, Tomorrow, Forever."

For sure.