Gerrit Cole is, without question, the top option on the free agent market this offseason. He’s coming off a dominant 2019 season that has continued into October, and he will spend all of 2020 at just 29 years old. My projections are very high for Cole, as they peg him at a 3.09 ERA over 193 innings with a 2.41 BB/9 and an insane 11.03 K/9.
The expectation is that Cole will earn somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million, which would probably be paid out over a period of seven-to-eight years. Assuming good health, Cole probably has three-to-four prime seasons remaining, meaning he will spend three-to-four seasons of this contract in decline. While it’s impossible to know what past-prime Gerrit Cole will look like, there’s a statistical trend in his more recent numbers that might give some insight.
Cole has seen his home run/fly-ball rate increase by more than double after the 2016 season, which was also the beginning of a trend of increasing fly-ball rates and consequent decreasing ground-ball rates, which culminated in an intersection last season. While Minute Maid Park is notoriously hitter friendly, and could have contributed to this decline, it should be noted that Cole spent 2017 in Pittsburgh, and PNC Park is among the most pitcher friendly ballparks in the league.
Now, this information doesn’t suggest that Cole is likely to fall off any time soon. He’s still averaging over 97 mph on his fastball, meaning there’s less hard contact (33.9 percent in 2019), but once his average velocity drops as he ages, the home run numbers could go through the roof.
So, what does this mean? Should teams still invest in Cole for the market value? I would say yes, but an organization should consider their park factors before doling out compensation draft picks and nine figures. I believe an eight-year contract worth $200 million for Cole would look better with the Minnesota Twins or the St. Louis Cardinals than it would with the Philadelphia Phillies or Houston Astros, both of whom have been speculative fits.
While that’s not to say that Philadelphia or Houston should avoid the righty, as Cole seems likely to be a valuable asset to a team with World Series aspirations through at least the first half of his contract, I believe that Hyun-Jin Ryu on a three-year contract worth roughly $75 million would be a better option.
My projections on Ryu are very promising, as I have him throwing 134.2 innings of 3.29 ERA ball, with a 47 percent ground-ball rate, a 2.02 BB/9, and an 8.50 K/9. The reason that he won’t make as much money is simply his age, as he will be 33 during the 2020 season, but it should also be noted that Ryu doesn’t come with a qualifying offer and shouldn’t reasonably expect to receive any more than three seasons.
Personally, I believe that the Phillies would be the best fit for Ryu based on the ballpark factors, the payroll timeline, and farm system. Houston’s rotation is so star-studded with enough promising prospects in the pipeline that they can afford to allow Cole to walk for increased payroll flexibility and a compensation pick. The Phillies need a stable top-of-the-rotation ace to pair with Aaron Nola.
The problem is that their farm system is middling after trades and graduations, and their long-term financial flexibility, while still remaining, could be completely terminated with another long-term contract worth over $200 million. Signing Ryu would only jack up their payroll rates for three years, which would be offset by players such as Jake Arrieta and their litany of high-cost relief signings coming off the books during the life of the contract.
While signing Cole wouldn’t be a bad move for the organization, as they desperately need top-of-the-rotation help, it increases the odds that the competitive window could close earlier than it otherwise would. They’d have significantly less money to maintain or replace players such as Nola (through 2023) or J.T. Realmuto (controlled through 2020) and more money tied up in aging players in the back half of their contracts, with Bryce Harper under contract through 2031 (his age 38 season) and an eight-year Cole deal going through 2027. On the other hand, signing Ryu would serve as an immediate solution without handicapping them in the second half of the decade.