The Evil Empire struck again Tuesday night with multiple reports suggesting the New York Yankees landed the biggest free agent prize of the offseason by signing 29-year-old starting pitcher Gerrit Cole to a 9-year, $324 million deal.
If the reports are true, the Yankees just paid out the richest contract in history to a pitcher in both overall value and average annual value ($36 million), topping the seven-year, $245 million deal ($35 million AAV) that the World Series Champion Washington Nationals gave Stephen Strasburg earlier this week.
If those numbers seem astronomical to you now, just wait until you see the revenue breakdown of the still unconfirmed contract. The Yankees have yet to officially announce the signing.
Cole has averaged 27.4 starts since he broke into the majors in 2013 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, including 32.7 games over the past two seasons with the Houston Astros. Four of Cole’s seven seasons saw the ace pitcher reach 30 games started and over 200 innings pitched.
Due to injury and the inevitability of a decline in production, projecting stats forward is tough, but for the sake of this exercise lets assume Cole’s recent history of 32.7 games started and at least 200 innings pitched will continue.
At that rate, the Yankees will be paying Cole an astounding $1.1 million per start.
Cole struck out a career high 326 batters in 2019 and has averaged 266 strikeouts over the past 3 seasons. The Yankees will be paying Cole $135,338 per strikeout based on his three—year average.
Judging players by advanced stats is the new normal in baseball and the ultimate stat for players is wins against replacement (WAR). Over his past two seasons with the Astros, Cole has seen his cumulative WAR skyrocket to 12.1 in two seasons, from 11.3 in the previous five seasons with the Pirates.
Assuming that Cole is closer to his Astros WAR than his Pirates WAR, the Yankees are paying Cole annually about $6 million per win value that he will add to the roster as opposed to a replacement level player.
The pure size of the numbers aside, Cole’s contract, and all long-term sports deals, is rife with potential pitfalls for the Yankees.
Most teams would rather pay long-term for a position player than a pitcher for several reasons. Position players are in the field every day, barring injury, while pitchers take the mound every five games on average. Another reason pitchers don’t get the deal that Cole got, except if they are exceptional like Cole, is that pitchers have a higher perceived risk of injury.
As pitchers, and all players, get older that risk of injury grows, so locking in a pitcher for so long is an exceptionally risky maneuver.
Here is a look at the largest contracts in MLB history (according to MLB.com):
· Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillies: 13 years, $330 million (2019-2031)
· Manny Machado, San Diego Padres: 10 years, $300 million (2019 – 2028)
· Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees: 10 years, $275 million (2008 – 2017)
· Alex Rodriguez, Texas Rangers: 10 years, $252 million (2001 – 2010)
· Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels: 10 years, $240 million (2012 – 2021)
· Robinson Cano, Seattle Mariners: 10 years, $240 million (2014 – 2023)
Before the Cole and Strasburg signings this week, you would have to get down to number 7 before you got to the first pitcher on the list. David Price signed a 7 year, $217 million (2016 – 2022) contract that eclipsed the 7 year, $210 million (2015 -2021) contract Max Scherzer signed with the Nationals.
For more on Cole's contract, read Sports Illustrated's take on the signing.