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What can Zack Wheeler’s contract tell us about Gerrit Cole?

Zack Wheeler, probably the third best starting pitcher on the free agent market, signed with Philadelphia today for 5-years, $118 million ($23.6M AAV).

That’s a lot of caaaaaash. When the off-season started, Fangraphs projected Wheeler’s contract would be in the neighborhood of 4-years, $72 million ($18M AAV). Wheeler ended up getting another guaranteed year and beating the total projected value by a whopping 64%. Already we’ve seen more action on the free agent market this year than the previous two, so perhaps this big Wheeler contract is a sign of things to come.

A few weeks ago when Scott and I did our If we were General Manager episode of the podcast, Scott said he’d sign Wheeler for 6-years, $120 million ($20M AAV). I told him that was a ludicrous contract for Wheeler, and while I stand by that, he might be right in the fact that Patrick Corbin’s 6-year, $140 million contract with Washington last winter was a precedent, not an exception. Even though Wheeler didn’t get the 6th year that Corbin got, he did get a heck of a lot more money than most people thought.

We’ve seen pitchers similar to Wheeler sign big contracts before. I just mentioned Corbin’s deal with the Nats. Yu Darvish signed for $126 million in 2018. Johnny Cueto signed for $130 million and Jeff Samardzija for $90 million in 2016. Despite those examples, the recent trend was not good for those tier-2 pitchers. Tier-2 is not an insult, but it had seemed like teams learned not to overextend themselves for these caliber pitchers because they are too unreliable.

Darvish was 31 when he signed in Chicago, and he’s pitched two mediocre-at-best seasons for the Cubs. Cueto was 30 when he signed in San Francisco. After putting up a stellar first season with the Giants, he’s dealt with injuries ever since. Samardzija was 31 when he signed in SF and, despite throwing 411 innings in his first two seasons, has been league-average or injured during his contract. Corbin, who turned 30 this past July, posted 4.8 WAR and helped the Nats get their first World Series Championship. So far, so good in DC, but there’s still 5 remaining years on the deal. Wheeler will turn 30 in May, and Philly will be paying him premium dollars until he’s 35 years old. That plan has already not worked once in Philly… (see: Jake Arrieta).

What does this mean for Cole?

Fangraphs projected 7-years, approx. $230 million for Cole. There is obviously no way he beats projection by the amount Wheeler did (that would mean a $375 million contract). David Price currently holds the record for the biggest-ever free agent pitcher contract, at $217 million. Clayton Kershaw is a close second at $215 million. We all want the Yankees to sign Cole. We all think he’s worth the money Price and Kershaw got, if not more.

The Yankees meeting with him apparently went well, but take that for what you will. Reports are that Cole would prefer to play for one of the two Los Angeles teams. Either someone in the Yankees inner circle floated that, or someone in Cole’s camp opened their fat mouth. Of course there is the possibility that it’s just baseball reporters speculating. I think its a good sign the Yankees flew to Cole and didn’t make him come to them, but really who knows? I don’t doubt the Yankees are “in” on Cole, but they might not be willing to pay him whatever it takes. Unlike the Phillies and other teams mentioned above, the Yankees have been stingy with pitcher contracts. The last time they spent big for a starter was Masahiro Tanaka in 2014, but that was a unique case since he was coming from Japan. The last time they spent big for a starter on the American market was CC Sabathia in 2009. That’s a long time ago.

But if Wheeler’s contract and the pace of this winter’s negotiations is a sign of anything to come, it’s that Gerrit Cole will be getting a record pay day.