Angels fans probably would like nothing better than to wake up one morning around Christmas and find a big lump of Cole in their stockings.
Gerrit Cole, that is.
There might not be a better fit in free agency next winter than the Angels and Cole, the Houston Astros right-hander who is 14-5 with a 2.87 earned-run average and an American League-leading 226 strikeouts in 156 2/3 innings of 25 starts.
Cole is what the pitching-poor Angels need — an ace. He’s a strapping 6-foot-4, 225-pound flame-thrower who could front a young rotation and possibly vault the Angels into playoff contention.
And Cole, a Newport Beach native who grew up an Angels fan and played at Orange Lutheran High School and UCLA, seems open to a possible homecoming.
After allowing one run and striking out 11 in Houston’s 11-2 win in Angel Stadium on July 18, Cole said he enjoyed pitching in front of family members and friends.
“I grew up here, watched games when they still had bleachers,” Cole said. “It’s a really unique park. Driving up the 57 today, seeing the Big A, it’s always cool. It’s always special. In an industry where you don’t always get to see your family as much as you would like, getting to hug your mom after the game is nice.”
For an Angels-Cole pairing to produce Hallmark moments in 2020, however, the Angels must do something they have never done: dole out a nine-figure contract to a pitcher.
The two biggest contracts the Angels have awarded pitchers are the five-year, $85-million extension Jered Weaver signed in 2011 and the five-year, $77.5-million deal C.J. Wilson signed as a free agent before 2012.
Cole, who will turn 29 in September, could command a deal in the $200-million range, and not just because his agent, Scott Boras, rarely settles for less than top dollar or offers hometown discounts.
Cole will be the class of a thin free-agent pitching crop heavy on older left-handers such as Hyun-Jin Ryu, who will be 33 next season, Madison Bumgarner (30), Cole Hamels (36), Rich Hill (40) and Wade Miley (34). The top right-handers will be Zack Wheeler (29) and Tanner Roark (33).
“We haven’t secured one,” Angels General Manager Billy Eppler said Wednesday of a nine-figure deal with a pitcher, “but that doesn’t mean we haven’t explored one. There is not a philosophy or a directive in our organization to avoid sizable investments in pitching. The circumstances need to warrant such an investment.
“The player, all the variables that surround a player such as the aging curve, health, track record, the player’s interest in playing [here], the needs of the team, the expected win probability that we would realize if we were to make such an acquisition ... all of those things play into it and lead us to a certain decision.”
It’s risky to sign a power pitcher approaching age 30 to a long-term deal. How will Cole adapt to an inevitable decline in stuff as he nears 35?
Cole has shown no signs of slippage yet. He’s actually gained velocity on his fastball, which has jumped from an average of 95.2 mph in 2016 to 97 mph this season, according to Fangraphs. His slider has increased from 87.7 mph in 2016 to 89.2 mph this season. He also throws a curve and changeup.
Teams often overpay for top free-agent starters, hoping the peak performance delivered in a pitcher’s prime will offset the high cost in the final years of a massive contract.
The Angels have gone the low-budget, quick-fix route for years, attempting to plug rotation holes with the likes of Matt Harvey, Trevor Cahill, Ricky Nolasco and Joe Blanton. It hasn’t worked.
It’s extremely difficult to piece together rotations in a division headed by the powerhouse Astros, who flexed financial might by acquiring Zack Greinke, who is owed $32 million a year through 2021, at the July 31 trade deadline.
The Angels pursued free agents such as Patrick Corbin, Nathan Eovaldi and J.A. Happ last winter, but wouldn’t go much past $100 million for Corbin, who signed a six-year, $140-million deal with Washington, and fell short in bids for Eovaldi (four years, $68 million with Boston) and Happ (two years, $34 million with the New York Yankees).
With a current rotation that ranks last in the major leagues in innings (481 1/3), 28th in ERA (5.46) and 27th in strikeouts (452) entering a four-game series at Boston, it remains to be seen whether the Angels empty the coffers for Cole.
“The market this winter will have some pitching on it,” Eppler said. “I’m sure we’ll be sitting with [free agents] and seeing if something can be worked out.”
Despite having two of the highest-paid players in the game in center fielder Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, whose 10-year, $240-million contract expires in 2021, the Angels could afford Cole.
They have five players — Trout, Pujols, left fielder Justin Upton, shortstop Andrelton Simmons and infielder Zack Cozart — under contract in 2020 for $116 million; six players for $130 million if they pick up right fielder Kole Calhoun’s $14-million option.
The 10 or so arbitration-eligible players — such as pitchers Andrew Heaney, Cam Bedrosian and Hansel Robles — they are expected to retain will add about $20 million, bringing their 2020 commitments to about $150 million with Calhoun.
The balance of the roster could be filled by players earning near the major league minimum, which would add about $10 million, bringing the 2020 payroll to about $160 million with Calhoun.
The team’s projected 2020 payroll for Competitive Balance Tax purposes, which is based on the average annual value of multiyear contracts and includes benefits and salaries for 40-man roster players, is about $164 million.
Not only would the Angels have room under the $208-million luxury-tax threshold to add Cole, they could sign another quality starter to a short-term deal. Such upgrades would push Heaney, Felix Pena and youngsters Jaime Barria and Griffin Canning to the middle and back of the rotation, where they belong. And Shohei Ohtani can return to the mound for the first time since his 2018 Tommy John surgery without the pressure of heading the rotation.
The Angels have a solid collection of young and affordable relievers led by Robles, Ty Buttrey and Bedrosian. Keynan Middleton, who had the stuff to close before his 2018 elbow surgery, is expected back next season.
A lineup led by Trout, the best all-around player in baseball, Upton, Calhoun, Pujols and Simmons could receive a boost if top outfield prospect Jo Adell reaches the big leagues in 2020. Pitching again would be the weakness, although a Cole-powered rotation might fuel a playoff push.
Which circles back to the central question: Would the Angels for the first time give a long, lucrative contract to a starting pitcher?