SAN DIEGO — Get ready for ColeFest.
As the winter meetings convene in San Diego, topic No. 1 figures to be the landing spot for Gerrit Cole, who is poised to sign the largest contract for a pitcher in major league history.
The only question is which team will give it to him.
The Angels and New York Yankees are believed to be the top two suitors, with the Dodgers likely in the mix as well.
All three teams have already had face-to-face meetings with Cole, which allows for speculation that a deal could happen any day.
Of course, it also could drag past the new year, as the top free-agent deals did last winter.
When it’s over, expect Cole to set a record.
The largest contract for a pitcher went to David Price, who signed a seven-year, $217-million deal with the Boston Red Sox in December 2015. The highest average annual value for a pitcher belongs to Zack Greinke, who makes $34.3 million per year under the six-year, $206-million deal he signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2015.
At the time of Price’s deal, he was entering his age 30 season. In the previous three years, he’d posted a 3.01 ERA over 93 starts with 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings. Greinke was entering his age 32 season, with a 2.30 ERA over 92 starts and 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings over his previous three years.
Cole will be pitching in his age 29 season next season. Over his last three years, he’s posted a 3.20 ERA in 98 starts, with 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings. Over his last two years, though, he’s got a 2.68 ERA over 65 starts.
Cole also compares favorably to Max Scherzer, who signed a seven-year, $210-million deal in January 2015. Scherzer was entering his age 30 season, with a 3.24 ERA and 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings over 97 starts in the previous three years.
Considering Cole hits free agency at least a year younger than any of those three, he ought to be able to break the records for average annual value and total value.
The Angels and Yankees, at least, seem eager to pay the price, if the industry perception is accurate.
Each team, however, has selling points the other can’t match.
The Angels are Cole’s hometown team. He attended Orange Lutheran High and UCLA. He has talked about how he grew up as an Angels fan, and attended games regularly at Angel Stadium, including the 2002 World Series. Houston Astros teammate Josh Reddick believed Cole’s preference for the West Coast was so strong that he predicted Cole would sign with a team “west of Nevada.”
The Angels also offer Cole the opportunity to play with Mike Trout, who is signed for the next 11 years, and with two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani. Cole said in August that he’s fascinated by Ohtani and loves watching him.
Despite all that, if Cole’s priority is to have a chance to win the World Series every year, the Yankees have a clear edge. With more resources than any team in the majors, the Yankees always have a powerful team that is in the running for the World Series. Although they haven’t won a World Series since 2009, they have made the playoffs in seven of the 10 years since, and they haven’t had a losing record since 1992.
The Angels have made the playoffs just once in the past 10 years. They have four consecutive losing seasons, and in 2019 they lost their most games since 1999. Even if Cole signs with the Angels, they will need some help – either from further additions or breakouts from current players – to make the playoffs.
The Angels would likely to try to convince Cole they can be consistent winners soon if he joins the core that includes, Trout, Ohtani and top prospect Jo Adell. Trout showed his confidence in the plan when he signed his deal in March.
Obviously, the Dodgers may represent the sweet spot with the best of both sides: geography and a chance to win.
Neither the Dodgers nor the Yankees has a need for Cole as acutely as the Angels, though, which could prompt owner Arte Moreno to simply make an offer Cole can’t refuse.
Moreno was frustrated enough by the string of losing seasons that he led the decision to fire Brad Ausmus and bring in Joe Maddon as the manager. He also said he plans to increase the payroll in 2020, although he wouldn’t say by how much.
General manager Billy Eppler, who is in the final year of his contract, has not signed any free agent for more than the $28 million the Angels committed to Zack Cozart two years ago.
It seems obvious Eppler is going to have to do that this winter if the Angels are going to compete in 2020. If the Angels don’t get Cole, expect them to make a run at Stephen Strasburg, with whom they’ve also had a meeting. Hyun-Jin Ryu and Madison Bumgarner are also free agents.
They also could try to trade for a pitcher like Robbie Ray of the Arizona Diamondbacks or José Quintana of the Chicago Cubs.
While Eppler has refused to say much about whom he’s after, he’s made no secret of the fact that the Angels need pitching.
They have Ohtani, Andrew Heaney, Griffin Canning, Dylan Bundy, Patrick Sandoval, Jaime Barría, José Suarez, Dillon Peters and Félix Peña on their starting pitcher depth chart right now.
“We would be open to supplementing that group with increased talent if we can make that work,” Eppler said. “We like talented players here. If those players are available, we can execute a trade for that player or pursue a free agent deal.”