With a starting rotation upheaval a distinct possibility this offseason, the Astros need to lock up one of their own for the long-term.
Back on January 13, 2018, the Astros acquired Gerrit Cole from the Pirates. Pittsburgh acquired some help for their rebuild…wait…they traded for Chris Archer this summer?! Sending Tyler Glasnow, Shane Baz, and Austin Meadows to Tampa?! The Pirates confuse me. Anyway, the baseball world quivered, and rightly so, at the thought of facing Houston’s starting rotation in 2018. Well, except for Boston’s bats in the ALCS, but that’s a different story.
Acquiring Cole has proven to be Houston’s best trade since…*checks dates*…the Justin Verlander trade on August 31, 2017 at 11:59:58 EDT. Why, yes, the Astros have had a good run on acquiring two highly talented starting pitchers over the past 14 months. Like Verlander, it took parting ways with some well-regarded prospects, but Cole — 2.88 ERA, 2.70 FIP in 200 1/3 innings — proved to be well worth the price in the short-term.
Cole, like Verlander, also happens to be a free-agent following the 2019 season. You know, next season? I’ll reserve another day, another time for a possible Verlander extension, but the Astros need to lock up Cole, like, yesterday. If Houston has any inkling to keep their window fully open beyond 2019, keeping the age-28 right-hander is paramount. Yes, even if the cost is high.
Entering his final year of arbitration, Cole made $6.75 million in 2018. Based on his results during his first season in Houston, I’d expect that number to noticeably increase. For comparison, Dallas Keuchel saw his salary increase from $9.15 million in 2017 to $13.2 million in 2018 in his last year of arbitration eligibility. An eight-figure salary doesn’t seem outlandish for Cole, who just completed the most successful season of his career.
If extension talks are an option, I’d expect a four-to-six year commitment of at least $20 million per season. Spotrac currently has Cole earning a market value contract of six-years, $135.96 million. That speculative figure breaks down to an annual value of $22.6 million, which seems about right. Jordan Zimmerman (five years, $110 million) and Yu Darvish (six years, $126 million) are listed as comparable contracts. It also helps that he hasn’t suffered much in terms of long-term injuries thus far in his career. Healthy starting pitchers tend to do quite well in free agency.
Now, I am not sure if Cole is open to an extension with the Astros. He’s his own person with his own set of priorities, so it is ultimately his call whether he wants to call Houston his professional home beyond next year. By all appearances from afar, he has enjoyed his time in southeast Texas. But I also assume that he is aware of his market value. If he replicates his new-found success next season, Cole can basically name his price.
Do the Astros feel comfortable with Cole hitting the free-agency with no guarantee of his return? That’s why I view it as important for team management to at least explore the possibility of a contract extension with Cole and his agent, Scott Boras. Yes, that Scott Boras. Hey, it doesn’t hurt to at least ask.
The cost of a new contract obviously wouldn’t be cheap for any club. Anyone hoping for a discount can go ahead and forget about it. It helps that Houston already has a committed payroll today of $118.175 million for 2019, which includes arbitration estimates. The club’s payroll from the most recent season was $160.394 million, so there is a bit of wiggle room. General manager Jeff Luhnow has already hinted that increasing the payroll is a possibility.
On a side note, isn’t it kind of impressive how Luhnow and his staff reshaped the starting rotation compared to two winters ago? For as much as I like Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, the acquisitions of Verlander, Cole, and Charlie Morton put the team over the top during the past two seasons. The return on investment? One World Series title one year and another ALCS appearance the next. To borrow a phrase from King of the Hill, “I’ll tell you what,” that’s a good return.
With Boras involved as Cole’s agent, I am not sure how feasible extension talks are today. To the Astros’ credit, they did sign Jose Altuve to a contract extension, another Boras client, prior to the start of the 2018 season. At least there is a precedence, but Altuve’s and Cole’s respective situations are different. Regardless of the team and agency, Cole will, and should, make the best decision for he and his family. The Astros need to make the best decision for the franchise. For Houston’s baseball sake, let’s hope that the desires of both parties overlap with one another.