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Why Zack Wheeler could be the next Gerrit Cole

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Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Nov. 22. Zack Wheeler agreed to a five-year deal worth $118 million with the Philadelphia Phillies on Dec. 4.

The final image we have of Gerrit Cole’s tenure with the Houston Astros was after Game 7 of the World Series, when he was wearing a Scott Boras Corporation cap instead of drinking champagne during a victory celebration.

Still, it was a wonderful two seasons in Houston for Cole, as he shed his previous rep as a talented but inconsistent right-hander to become arguably the best starter in the majors. He went 35-10 with a 2.68 ERA and a ridiculous 602 strikeouts in 412⅔ innings with the Astros — a big improvement over his final two seasons with the Pirates when he went 19-22 with a 4.12 ERA and 294 strikeouts in 319 innings.

Cole is now a free agent, likely to receive the biggest contract ever for a pitcher. Next up for the Astros, or any other team for that matter: Find Gerrit Cole 2.0.

We have a guy in mind. We’ll get to new Phillies starter Zack Wheeler in a moment and why he’s an interesting comp for where Cole was two years ago, but let’s first do a quick synopsis of how Cole made the leap after his trade to Houston.

Cole was the No. 1 overall pick out of UCLA in 2011 and had his best season with the Pirates in 2015, when he went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. His follow-up seasons were not as impressive, and the Astros traded four players to acquire him — with a clear idea of how to make Cole better.

The Pirates liked to emphasize two-seam fastballs down in the zone, the better to generate ground balls. The Astros encourage their pitchers — especially those with good velocity — to throw more four-seam fastballs up in the zone, the better to generate strikeouts. Ditching his sinker wasn’t the only change Cole made. He also started throwing his slider and curveball more often — which also helped produce more strikeouts. Here’s his pitch selection percentages with the Pirates compared with those with the Astros:

Pirates, 2016-2017

4-seam fastball: 48.7%
2-seam fastball: 13.7%
Changeup: 8.6%
Curveball: 11.3%
Slider: 17.6%

Astros, 2018-2019
4-seam fastball: 50.9%
2-seam fastball: 4.2%
Changeup: 6.0%
Curveball: 17.3%
Slider: 21.6%

With the Pirates in 2016-17, Cole’s four-seam fastball generated a strikeout rate of 20.7%. His two-seamer generated a strikeout rate of just 9.4%. With the Astros, Cole’s strikeout rate on the four-seam fastball improved to 39.2%, so it’s not just about simply throwing it more often but also locating it better along with the interplay of throwing more breaking balls.

There aren’t many pitchers who have Cole-like potential, simply because there are few starting pitchers who can match his velocity. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings in 2019, Cole had the second-highest average fastball velocity at 97.4 mph, behind only Noah Syndergaard. Wheeler was fourth on the list, averaging 97.0 mph.

Wheeler is not a perfect match for Cole. Most notably, he missed all of 2015 and 2016 with injuries, including Tommy John surgery. He went 23-15 with a 3.65 ERA over the past two seasons with the Mets with 374 strikeouts in 377⅔ innings, numbers that line up with Cole’s final two seasons in Pittsburgh. Wheeler received a five-year contract worth $23.6 million per season. Teams were interested not just because he has been a quality pitcher for the Mets but because of the expectation that there’s some upside the Mets weren’t able to extract.

Check out Wheeler’s numbers from 2019:

Four-seamer: 918 pitches, .241/.309/.341, 29.4% strikeout rate
Two-seamer: 946 pitches: .297/.331/.484, 17.2% strikeout rate

Even though Wheeler’s four-seam fastball was the more effective pitch, he threw the two-seamer more often. So now the Phillies might look at those numbers and advise Wheeler to throw his four-seam fastball more often and perhaps unlock some of that upside.

Of course, it is not that simple. You have to break down when Wheeler threw all those pitches. He threw almost an equal amount in hitters’ counts — 201 four-seamers, 194 two-seamers (both were hit hard). The big difference came in pitchers’ counts (0-1, 0-2, 1-2, 2-2). The results:

Four-seamer: 330 pitches, .151/.160/.258, 52.5% strikeout rate
Two-seamer: 363 pitches: .297/.300/.469, 30.5% strikeout rate

Again, it’s clear that Wheeler’s four-seam fastball was the much better pitch in 2019. While this suggests a repertoire change, à la Cole, it might not be quite so simple. In 2018, Wheeler’s two-seamer was the better pitch, at least in terms of damage:

Four-seamer: 1,238 pitches, .249/.327/.357, 23.8% strikeout rate
Two-seamer: 427 pitches, .200/.239/.295, 13.8% strikeout rate

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2019 MLB winter meetings rumors, dates, free-agent updates and predictions

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Baseball’s winter meetings are underway in San Diego, beginning Monday and continuing through Thursday’s Rule 5 draft. With big-name free agents such as Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg narrowing their lists of potential landing spots and stars including Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor and Kris Bryant reportedly on the trade block this MLB offseason, it’s sure to be an exciting week of wheeling and dealing.

Start the fun with our experts’ predictions on which moves could shape these meetings and check back throughout the week for the latest news, rumors, buzz and analysis.

Key hot stove links

Trades we want to see at the winter meetings
Jeff Passan’s big winter meetings questions | Trade tiers
Keith Law’s top 50 free agents (ESPN+) | Free-agent tracker
A blockbuster move for all 30 teams
Hot stove survey

ESPN+ reaction to offseason’s biggest moves: Padres acquire Pham | Phillies sign Wheeler | Reds get Moustakas | White Sox add Grandal

MLB winter meetings predictions

We asked our ESPN MLB experts to weigh in on what they think could happen in San Diego. Here’s what they said.

Who will be the biggest name to sign during the winter meetings?

Anthony Rendon: Three votes (Alden Gonzalez, Jesse Rogers, Marly Rivera)

Rendon’s market seems more limited than that of Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, and he doesn’t seem like the type to want to wait around. — Gonzalez

The pitching market started fast but will slow down while top hitters start to come off the board. There’s none bigger than Rendon. — Rogers

There is no other position player on the market in Rendon’s league. Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg will be the talk of the town, but with so many teams interested, they might drive each other’s market up, and their signings could take a bit more time. — Rivera

Madison Bumgarner: Three votes (Bradford Doolittle, Sam Miller, David Schoenfield)

This winter’s relatively brisk market (compared to those of the past two winters, at least) has swept up only one Scott Boras client, and Boras is famously patient, so it wouldn’t shock me if his top clients (Cole, Rendon, Strasburg) stay unsigned for a few more weeks. — Miller

With Zack Wheeler off the market and Cole unavailable to all but a couple of teams, the tier for free-agent starters behind Cole and Stephen Strasburg is shrinking quickly, so pitching-hungry teams such as the White Sox, Twins and Braves need to pounce. — Doolittle

The Yankees have shouted their desire to sign Cole from the top of the Empire State Building, but don’t expect Cole to the Yankees (or Angels or Dodgers) to happen this week. With Boras doing the negotiating, a contract of this magnitude is unlikely to happen so soon, as the Yankees just met with Cole. Although the market is moving more quickly this offseason, I don’t expect any of the big three names (Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon) to seal a deal in San Diego. Let’s go with Bumgarner. — Schoenfield

Gerrit Cole: Two votes (Dan Mullen, Matt Marrone)

I know, I know. Scott Boras guys usually sign during the NCAA tournament, not before college football bowl season, but it seems like there is real traction here, especially given that the Yankees have ownership-level approval to offer Cole a record-setting deal. There are so few teams that could go there that maybe — just maybe — it’ll speed things up. — Mullen

The Yankees aren’t going to be beaten on this one. Except maybe by the Angels. Expect Cole’s suitors to pounce. — Marrone


What will be the biggest trade to go down in San Diego?

Kris Bryant: Two votes (Dan Mullen, Jesse Rogers)

Here’s a prediction: The Cubs will trade Bryant to the Braves for Max Fried and top prospects. — Rogers

If there’s a blockbuster deal that rocks the winter meetings, the Cubs seem to be the most likely candidates to make it. My gut says Bryant is slightly more likely to move this week than Willson Contreras or Anthony Rizzo, but no deal involving Chicago would surprise me here. — Mullen

Starling Marte: Two votes (Sam Miller, Bradford Doolittle)

Starling Marte to somewhere. There’s no great center-field option on the free-agent market, and that’s one of the positions on the field that a team can’t fake. — Miller

Given our diminished expectations for winter meetings trades, Marte is actually a pretty big name to move and one of the few impact players who seems readily available on the trade market, at least among those who wouldn’t require an acquiring team to empty the prospect vault. — Doolittle

Anthony Rizzo: One vote (Alden Gonzalez)

He’s relatively affordable for two more seasons, heads elsewhere, and the Cubs get a bounty of prospects in return. — Gonzalez

Francisco Lindor: One vote (David Schoenfield)

It would seem that Kris Bryant’s trade value is somewhat tied to where Rendon and Josh Donaldson end up. If, say, the Nationals or Rangers lose on both of those third basemen, their interest in Bryant would increase. That means a Bryant trade might have to wait. I’m still skeptical on whether Mookie Betts will be dealt at all. Of the big three trade candidates, Francisco Lindor is my pick as most likely to get traded this week. — Schoenfield

David Price: One vote (Matt Marrone)

Cole — and likely Stephen Strasburg — will soon shatter Price’s record free-agent deal for a pitcher. That is a testament to Cole, but it also shows that the market is hungry for pitching. Boston will find a way to unload a huge salary — if not Price’s, then maybe Nathan Eovaldi‘s — and keep Mookie Betts for at least one more year. — Marrone

Matthew Boyd: One vote (Marly Rivera)

Boyd was one of the pitchers the Yankees tried to acquire last year, but the asking price was deemed too high. With the Tigers mired in a rebuild, Al Avila will need to find a market for the talented but inconsistent left-hander. — Rivera


Which team is most likely to be the talk of the winter meetings?

New York Yankees: Four votes (Dan Mullen, Jesse Rogers, Matt Marrone, Marly Rivera)

If the Yankees leave San Diego with Gerrit Cole in pinstripes — or spend the next three days having everyone buzz about the possibility of it — there really isn’t anything anyone else can do that would have us talking more than that. — Mullen

Everyone knows the Yankees need starting pitching. Before it’s over, they’ll be linked to many available names. — Rogers

Is the Death Star fully operational? Whether or not the Yankees sign Cole this week, there’ll be plenty of buzz around the Bombers and baseball’s biggest free agent, not to mention the various other questions in the Bronx after the team’s second ALCS loss to the Astros in three years. — Marrone

Just how high will the Yankees be willing to go to outbid the Angels for Gerrit Cole? — Rivera

Atlanta Braves: Two votes (Sam Miller, David Schoenfield)

The Braves have already been active on midtier moves, but if they’re really pushing to join the superteam tier, they make sense as a destination for almost any headline name out there. — Miller

The Braves have a lot of potential to take this honor if they’re willing to up the payroll a little. They could be in on signing Donaldson or trading for Bryant. Maybe they still want to add a veteran starter to the rotation even after signing Cole Hamels. Heck, Dansby Swanson isn’t enough to block a potential Lindor trade (in fact, Swanson could be part of the deal). The Braves have drawn a hard line on their payroll under Liberty Media, but they need one more big star, and they have the financial and minor league resources to do it. — Schoenfield

Los Angeles Dodgers: One vote (Alden Gonzalez)

The Dodgers appear to be in on all the big names, on the trade market and in free agency, and now might finally be the time for Andrew Friedman to make a big splash. — Gonzalez

Los Angeles Angels: 1 vote (Bradford Doolittle)

With L.A.’s other team in spend mode and their need for starting pitching so acute, the Angels have the kind of pent-up desperation needed to push things in the market, perhaps more than any other club. — Doolittle


Who is one under-the-radar team to watch in San Diego?

Texas Rangers: Two votes (Alden Gonzalez, Dan Mullen)

They’re heading into a new ballpark, have unveiled new uniforms and need a new star to market around. — Gonzalez

The Rangers want to do something big as they get ready to move into their new ballpark. The question is if they find a free-agent or big trade fit that takes them from a team to watch to one actually making moves. — Mullen

Cincinnati Reds: Two votes (Jesse Rogers, Marly Rivera)

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Cubs to face Red Sox, Yankees in back-to-back weeks as part of Sunday Night Baseball slate

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A pair of Chicago Cubs interleague games against the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees will feature on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball 2020 first-half slate, as announced by the network Monday.

The Cubs are hosting the Red Sox and visiting the Yankees in back-to-back weeks in June, with games on June 21 and June 28 being set as part of Sunday Night Baseball’s 31st season.

The Yankees lead the way with five Sunday Night Baseball appearances through July 19, followed by the Cubs, Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals with four each and the Milwaukee Brewers and New York Mets with three each.

After July 19, Sunday Night Baseball selections will be made at least two weeks in advance.

The Sunday Night Baseball slate opens March 29 with the Cubs visiting the Brewers, who officially eliminated Chicago from the postseason in 2019.

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Gerrit Cole watch, big spenders and more

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SAN DIEGO — The winter meetings, once the domain of blockbuster trades and megabucks free-agent signings, have in recent years gone into the sort of hibernation typically associated with the season. They’ve been defined more by their inaction than their action. Last year’s big move: Philadelphia guaranteeing $50 million to Andrew McCutchen. The year before: The Yankees announcing the acquisition of Giancarlo Stanton — a deal done before the meetings even began.

The last big trade took place in 2016, when Boston acquired Chris Sale. The last foundational free-agent signing? Jon Lester’s six-year, $155 million deal in 2014 with the Chicago Cubs. The winter meetings were once a place where Bill Veeck sat at a table, posted a sign that said “Open For Business” and proceeded to make six trades. Today general managers tend to prefer texting.

All of this is to say: It’s time for a representative winter meetings, one that can compete with the NFL and NBA and bowl season and college basketball. Whether the 2019 version, which kicks off Monday morning at the Manchester Grand Hyatt here, offers as much depends on how motivated and inclined executives and agents are to strike deals. Since we know where all of those things could take place, let’s play a game of 20 Questions to answer the who, what, when and, most important, why.

What’s this week going to be like?

Some free agents will sign here. Maybe even one who is going to get more than a quarter-billion dollars. Some trades will happen here. Maybe even one with a franchise-type player. These meetings, according to a number of the sport’s power brokers, have a sense of momentum thanks to a free-agent market that has roared — or at least rumbled — in comparison to those in recent years.

Then again, it’s worth remembering that the winter meetings last only through the Rule 5 draft Thursday morning, and no grand incentive exists for teams to do business here. Whereas once the meetings provided a face-to-face opportunity for deals to be struck, the constant communication among teams looking to lock down trades — and between teams and agents interested in making deals for free agents — have made the winter meetings something of an anachronism.

Which is part of why the baseball establishment is hoping something changes. Especially considering there has been momentum toward one of those monster deals actually happening.

So Gerrit Cole is signing?!?!

Slow down, chief. No matter how many times someone begs, “Announce Cole” on Twitter, the quality of initial offers — which, according to sources, are expected to be considered by Cole during the meetings — will dictate how quickly the best player on the market and best free-agent pitcher ever signs.

Maybe it will be here. Maybe it won’t. Again: There is nothing forcing Cole to choose his destination now, and there is nothing to be gained by teams trying to give Cole a take-it-or-leave-it offer, because if even the slightest chance it could backfire exists, the risk of such a play would be uncharacteristic for typically risk-averse teams such as the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers — or even the Los Angeles Angels, who have been burned by bad free-agent deals.

Hold on. Did you just call Gerrit Cole the best free-agent pitcher ever?

Yup. And this isn’t a prisoner-of-the-moment thing, either. Consider:

• Cole is 29 years old, and in an era when age matters greatly, he hits free agency younger than David Price, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Jon Lester, Patrick Corbin, Johnny Cueto, Cliff Lee, Zack Wheeler, Jordan Zimmermann and Kevin Brown — all of whom received $100 million-plus deals. The only younger nine-figure pitchers: CC Sabathia and Barry Zito, both of whom were 28. The best argument is for Greg Maddux, who was coming off a Cy Young-winning season in 1992 at 26 — and is an all-time-great Hall of Famer.

• But neither Maddux nor Zito nor even Sabathia had anything close to Cole’s raw stuff. His fastball, slider, curveball and changeup are the best array of pitches in the major leagues. Cole’s fastball averaged 97.2 mph last season, behind only Noah Syndergaard’s 97.7 mph among starters. In his seventh season, Cole threw harder than ever. That sort of pure ability is nearly unmatched.

• When he is controlling and commanding the ball, which Cole usually is, you can get rid of “nearly” — it is entirely unmatched. It’s not like Cole simply has a blessed right arm. He knows how to maneuver around the strike zone, too.

• How’s this for what it manifests: 20-5 record, 2.50 ERA, 212 1/3 innings, 326 strikeouts, dazzling postseason — a completely nonpareil walk year.

• Oh, and he’s durable, too. Over the past three years, Cole has made 98 starts and thrown 200-plus innings every year. He has never suffered an arm injury or required surgery. And it’s not like he’s going into free agency with an odometer that needs the Ferris Bueller treatment. Sabathia’s career innings (regular season and playoffs) going into his walk year: 1,694.1. Zito’s: 1,474.2. Cole is at 1,260.2.

• One thing teams took away from Cole’s meetings with them, according to sources: For all the objective analysis laid out above on how great he is, his soft factors impressed, too. The intelligence, the desire to win, the reports on how hard he works, the leadership, the yearning to be the absolute best at what he does. Cole is the full package.

If being the absolute best matters, would he really risk pitching in Yankee Stadium?

This sounds like a troll question. It’s not. In fact, this has nothing to do with whether Cole has the mettle to pitch in New York. He does. It’s more a devil’s advocate-style question — the sort Cole is even likely to ask — about what pitching in New York could potentially do to his legacy.

Pitching in the new Yankee Stadium can be positively exhilarating, especially if the Yankees are as good as they expect to be and play as much in October as they plan to. It is also exactly the sort of ballpark that vexes pitchers like Gerrit Cole.

Cole is a fairly extreme fly-ball pitcher. Last season, according to ESPN Stats & Info, he had the seventh-highest fly-ball rate in MLB. His opposite-field fly-ball rate was 10th in the American League. Yankee Stadium, meanwhile, had the fifth-highest home run rate allowed in the league last year. And the opposite-field home run rate at the stadium? The highest in MLB.

Now, Cole managed to pitch well last year while giving up an excessive amount of home runs per fly balls hit, so maybe this isn’t an issue. But Cole is competitive. He wants to be great, and greatness often is measured by numbers, and the notion that the only numbers important to Cole are the ones on the contract offer is incorrect.

Cole isn’t going to pick the Dodgers just because Dodger Stadium is arguably the best place to pitch in the major leagues. He isn’t going to pick the Angels only because he’ll give up fewer home runs. But he will think about it because he is bright and meticulous and introspective and sees this choice as much more than commas and zeroes.

What’s he gonna get?

play

2:31

Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon are the top free agents this offseason. Jeff Passan and Keith Law predict where they will land.

Multiple sources believe the bidding will begin in the seven-year, $250 million range and move up from there. If the offers are similar, teams may have a choice to separate themselves: Bump up the per-year value or add the extra year? It’s a fair question: Would it be better for Cole to get $37 million a year for seven seasons or $35 million a year for eight?

In the end, that latter figure sounds about right. A $35 million-per-annum payday would beat Greinke’s average annual value record. Eight years would supersede Price and a host of others (seven). So the guess — and it’s nothing more than a guess at this point: eight years, $282 million, for $35.25 million per year.

Would you please move on from Gerrit Cole?

Fine. But don’t you want to know who’s going to sign him?

Who’s going to sign him?!?!

I don’t know.

You’re the worst.

That’s not a question.

You’re the … worst?

Yes.

Now that we’ve got that established, who aren’t we going to be hearing much from this week, just so we can get them out of the way?

There are about a dozen teams that have shown no interest in playing for even medium-dollar free agents. Some of them, like the Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers and Miami Marlins, don’t have much of near-term value in trades, either, and aren’t expected to be terribly active in either market.

Kansas City continues to listen on super-utilityman Whit Merrifield, but the ask is rightly big. Pittsburgh could move center fielder Starling Marte, particularly with a paucity of available players at the position. Teams have continued to poke around on outfielder Mitch Haniger with Seattle in hopes that GM Jerry Dipoto might get twitchy.

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