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Ace Gerrit Cole signs record-breaking deal with Yankees

After more than a decade of courtship, Brian Cashman has finally landed his dream starting pitcher. A dominant ace, Gerrit Cole is at last a member of the New York Yankees, his monstrous free agent contract the largest ever given to a pitcher.

A prime-age superstar at 29, Cole led the American League in strikeouts and ERA last season, his second with the Houston Astros. The firebrand hurler attracted considerable interest in free agency, but the Yankees blew everybody away with a pact that could reach 10 years and $360 million in value.

Cole will earn $36 million annually, beating Stephen Strasburg’s yearly record for a pitcher. Gerrit will make more than $1 million per start, or roughly $10,000 per pitch, illustrating the Yankees’ belief in his ability.

Backed by Hal Steinbrenner, Cashman has systematically rebuilt the Yankee organisation in recent years, creating a window of sustainable opportunity. A young core centred on Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres and Luis Severino has delivered three straight postseason berths, but an elite ace was required to bust open the field.

Gerrit Cole is that guy, and the Yankees just become instant favourites to win the 2020 World Series by putting him in pinstripes.

The kid with the sign - why Gerrit Cole was a childhood Yankees fan

For years, such a marriage has seemed inevitable. Cole grew up in California, but his father was a Yankees fan from Syracuse. That affinity was passed down to Cole, who rooted for the great Yankees teams of Jeter, Rivera, Pettite and Posada as a kid.

When the Yankees came west to face Arizona in the 2001 World Series, the Cole family made a pilgrimage, attending games in pinstriped garb. At one game, Gerrit wielded a homemade sign bearing an immortal message: Yankees fan today, tomorrow, forever.

A serendipitous photographer captured Cole and his sign in the crowd, producing a legendary photograph that has recently exploded online. Cole also caught a ball from Jeter that day, solidifying his love for the Yankees.

Why Gerrit Cole rejected the Yankees in the 2008 draft

Gerrit worked hard at his craft, hoping to become a big league pitcher one day. He gained national attention at Orange Lutheran High School, reaching 96-mph on radar guns as a precocious teenager. Scouts from every major league team trailed Cole from that early age, and the Yankees were particularly avaricious in their pursuit of the burgeoning star.

As far back as 2007, Cashman devoured scouting reports and video on Cole, regularly checking in on the phenom. Within baseball, the Yankees were routinely criticised for their lack of quality pitching, and some analysts blamed Cashman for the team’s chronic deficiency in that area. Even back then, Cashman viewed Cole as a unique talent and a possible solution to his pitching conundrum. The Yankees general manager wanted Cole. Badly.

Accordingly, in the 2008 draft, Cashman drafted Cole out of high school in the first round. Internally, the Yankees prepared a $4 million signing bonus, way above the recommended slot value and an eye-watering figure for a high school senior. However, negotiations never materialised as Cole family discussions highlighted college as the most effective long-term option.

Despite hiring dollar-thirsty agent Scott Boras as his representative, Cole rejected the Yankees and attended the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) on a baseball scholarship. He tore up the college record books and re-entered the draft in 2011. The Pittsburgh Pirates selected Cole first overall, and he subsequently agreed an $8 million signing bonus to begin his professional career.

Gerrit Cole - Pittsburgh Pirates ace

A prized prospect, Cole debuted with the Pirates in 2013, pitching to a 3.22 ERA across 19 starts. He was integral to Pittsburgh’s resurgence, morphing into a frontline starter capable of owning big games. In five years with the Pirates, Gerrit went 59-32 with a 3.50 ERA, a 1.217 WHIP and a strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio of 8.4. Alongside Andrew McCutchen, he helped make Pittsburgh baseball relevant again.

However, such is the Pirates’ business model, Cole was routinely dangled in trade talks, and he was eventually moved to Houston before the 2018 season. According to media reports, Cashman attempted to land Cole from the Pirates on numerous occasions, but the asking price was always deemed prohibitive as the Yankees guarded their growing prospect base.

How analytics helped Gerrit Cole become the best pitcher in MLB

With the Astros, Cole made the leap from good to great, and then from great to damn unhittable. Devout believers in analytics, Houston lurks at the cutting-edge of baseball innovation. Adopting new-age metrics, the Astros mined the market for suppressed assets and suggested tweaks, backed by data, to increase their productivity. Gerrit Cole was their paragon.

Using heat maps, data troves and video analysis, the Astros showed Cole that, by using his four-seam fastball more, and by elevating it in the strike zone, hitters would be routinely overmatched by his commanding velocity.

The game had changed since Cole debuted with Pittsburgh, an organisation that preached the importance of inducing soft contact. Among the leaders in defensive shifts, the Pirates’ entire strategy revolved around keeping the ball down, getting ground balls and converting those opportunities into outs. Houston argued that those habits had diminished Cole’s dominance, and they urged him to unleash the power in his delivery.

A student of the game, meticulous and competitive, Cole agreed with the Astros’ advice. Tweaking his approach, Gerrit began to humiliate major league hitters. He went 15-5 with a 2.88 ERA in 2018, but the uptick in his strikeout rate was perhaps the most startling improvement. Cole struck out 12.4 hitters per nine innings in 2018, a 42% increase year-on-year.

In 2019, he somehow improved again, lowering his ERA to 2.50 and chiselling his WHIP to 0.895, among the top-40 marks ever recorded. Newly fearsome, Gerrit struck out 326 batters last season, the most since Randy Johnson in 2002. If it were not for teammate Justin Verlander, a first Cy Young Award would have been automatic.

Brian Cashman finally signs Gerrit Cole to record-setting Yankees contract

Cole beat the Yankees in Game 3 of the 2019 ALCS, pitching seven shutout innings to ram a dagger through Cashman’s heart. Houston prevailed in six games, capped by Jose Altuve’s dramatic walk-off homer, before losing to the Washington Nationals in the subsequent World Series.

Though catalysed by different protagonists, this mutual taste of October heartache further emboldened the synergy between Cole and the Yankees. The three-time All-Star yearns to win his first world championship ring, just as the Bronx Bombers hunger for their next great dynasty.

As free agency began, it seemed like a match made in heaven. Eventually, after decades of adulation and flirtation, it ultimately happened. Brian Cashman got his man, striking a mortal blow to the Yankees’ most formidable pennant rival in the process.

Cole looks set to fulfil his destiny in the Bronx, leading the Yankees into a win-now future. The kid with the sign grew up to become the frontline ace, and a world of pressure is now placed on his shoulders. Just like young Gerrit once upon a time, Yankees fans demand a world championship, and their highest-paid hero must deliver. Nothing else will suffice.

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Ryan Ferguson is the author of Conflict: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the War for My Heart, available now in paperback and Kindle formats through Amazon. Click the link below to get your copy now!

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