Stephen Strasburg re-signed with the Washington Nationals on Monday, the beneficiary of a record-setting, seven-year, $245-million contract. Zack Wheeler signed last week with the Philadelphia Phillies for $118 million over five years.
That leaves Orange County native Gerrit Cole as the remaining top-tier starter on the free-agent market. And as the first day of baseball’s winter meetings neared an end, the topic of Cole was all the rage.
Will he sign with the Angels, who have courted him aggressively? The New York Yankees reportedly planned to make him an offer Monday. The Dodgers have checked in as well.
Cole, 29, finished runner-up in Cy Young Award balloting after leading the American League with a 2.50 earned-run average and striking out an MLB-high 326 batters with the Houston Astros. Most observers believe that agent Scott Boras, who has represented Cole since he was at Orange Lutheran High, will negotiate a contract exceeding the total value of Strasburg’s gargantuan deal.
The Yankees will have a fight on their hands. Cole is of enormous interest to the Angels. Their rotation is in desperate need of a lift. Starters combined for a 5.64 ERA, the worst season mark in franchise history. The staff was so riddled by injuries no one pitched more than 96 innings.
That lack of production will not stand with new Angels manager Joe Maddon.
“I like five, six guys chewing up 1,000 innings [combined],” Maddon said. “That is the bedrock of the team for me, good starting pitching. When you have that, you have a chance to be in every game. When you have that, you have a chance to sustain winning streaks, and when you have that you have a chance to sustain morale.”
The Angels made a slight upgrade to the rotation, which includes left-handers Andrew Heaney and Patrick Sandoval, right-hander Griffin Canning and two-way player Shohei Ohtani, assuming he completes Tommy John rehab without any bumps, when they traded last week for durable right-hander Dylan Bundy.
They need much more.
General manager Billy Eppler declined to discuss dealings with free agents or trade partners, other than to say the team is aggressively pursuing upgrades. Maddon was more forthcoming. He said he tried to recruit Wheeler and Strasburg to Anaheim when the Angels met with the pitchers and was present when the Angels recently met with Cole.
Cole intrigued Maddon the most.
“This guy really knows what he wants to do and how he wants to do it, and what you [saw] in the World Series was no joke and was not an accident,” Maddon said. “He was prepared to do that. So I really enjoyed the conversation. I really enjoyed his intellect. Hopefully, I’ll get to enjoy it more consistently every fourth or fifth day.
“He’s a different cat in a lot of good ways.”
The question now is how much will Strasburg’s contract drive up Cole’s price.
“I think it will depend some on where the market goes in terms of things on the trade front as well as the free-agent front,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, who met recently with Cole. “We have seen past deals have a dramatic effect on subsequent deals and we’ve seen past deals not have as dramatic of an effect on future deals.
“I don’t really know at this point [how it will change]. I think we’ll have a better feel for that as we look back on the market than while we’re mired in it.”
Maddon does not seem to think Angels owner Arte Moreno will balk at Cole’s final demands, even though Moreno has never doled 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.
But Maddon said Moreno is fully committed to assembling a playoff-worthy roster and “he’s not just saying that.” He also said Eppler is primed to pounce and the Angels “just got to find a dance partner.”
“You have to create this believability that you can’t, you just can’t talk like you want to do something,” Maddon said. “You’ve got to actually take action and do different things. You need the right ingredients to make all this happen, there’s no doubt. So that’s something we’re working on right now.”
Ohtani began throwing bullpen sessions a week ago and is about two weeks away from completing his rehab. Another interesting development emerged: Maddon said he would entertain the idea of having Ohtani hit on the days he pitches. Ohtani only hit on days he did not pitch when he debuted in 2018. In AL ballparks, Maddon would have to forego using a designated hitter to follow through. “Why wouldn’t you? That’s another 50 at-bats a year that you’re going to get out of the guy that you wouldn’t get otherwise.” . . . The Angels cleared a spot on their 40-man roster, paving the way for an addition by outrighting right-hander José Rodríguez to triple A. ... The Angels signed left-handed reliever Hoby Milner, who had a 3.06 ERA with Tampa Bay’s triple-A team last season, to a minor league contract. He will compete for a job in the bullpen.
Times staff writer Jorge Castillo contributed to this report.