The Yankees knew they had landed themselves a gem in 2004 when they selected a high school kid by the name of Phil Hughes out of Southern California in the first round of the amateur draft. Four years later, they thought they had done it again. Baseball America called Gerrit Cole, a right-hander who could throw in the high 90s, the best high school pitcher since Hughes, and the Yanks picked him 28th in 2008. We knew the signing would go down to the wire, but Cole, a lifelong Yankee who went to the 2001 World Series as an 11-year-old, seemed likely to land in the Bronx.
On August 14, 2008, the bottom fell out. Word broke that Cole had opted for UCLA over the Yanks, and a three year mourning period began. In the intervening years, I’ve followed Cole closely.
For a young arm to opt for college over a lucrative deal from his favorite team is nearly unprecedented. First, it’s a very risky move. College coaches don’t pretend to care as much about their top pitchers’ arms as Major League organizations do, and they are more willing to overwork their youngsters to win now. If Cole got hurt at UCLA, his earnings potential would drop precipitously. Second, by eschewing the Yanks, odds were good that Cole wouldn’t have a chance to return to his favorite team until he’s a Major League free agent. If he becomes truly as good as advertised, he would become a top-five draft pick, and if he were to collapse, the Yanks would be entirely out of the picture all together. No small amount of emotion enters the picture.
Of course, in those intervening years, Cole has indeed been as good as advertised, and it stings. At UCLA, Cole, now a junior, has made a total of 41 appearances — 40 of those starts — and has been absolutely stellar. He has a 3.16 ERA in 256 IP and has given up 100 walks and 17 home runs while striking out 313. Barring an injury between now and June, either the Pirates or Mariners will take Cole as one of the first two picks of the draft. It stings.
In The Times today, Tyler Kepner profiled Cole, and it’s a fantastic read once Yankee fans get past the punch to the gut. “He’s a big C. C. Sabathia guy,” UCLA catcher and Cole’s former roommate Steve Rodriguez said. “He still is a huge Yankee fan. He gets intense when he watches their games.”
Kepner rehashes the negotiations:
Knowing they would exceed the recommended bonus for that slot, the Yankees waited until August to open negotiations with Cole’s adviser, Scott Boras. But by then, Cole and his family had decided that he would enroll at U.C.L.A. They told the Yankees not to make an offer, so the Yankees never did. Cole became the first high school pitcher in seven years to be drafted in the first round but choose college instead.
“The interesting thing is, everybody says he’s going to come out this year and make more money,” said Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees’ amateur scouting director. “How does anybody know what we would have gone to?”
…In 2009, Cole told The Los Angeles Times that he and his family had done “just an absurd amount of thinking” about the decision, comparing future earnings of players who sign out of high school to those who choose college. Cole’s father, Mark, has two graduate degrees and a successful consulting business. Unlike most families of drafted players, financial considerations were a lower priority. The Cole could afford to take a long-term view.
To me, it’s still a strange equation. The Cole family never, as Oppenheimer notes, heard an offer from the Yanks because they didn’t want to. Furthermore, had baseball not worked out, Cole could have gone back to college. Thousands of players have gotten their degrees after or even during their careers. Instead, the family gambled and, depending upon what happens in June, just might come out ahead.
It’s clear that the Yanks still regret missing out on Cole and still feel misled. “We knew it was going to be a tough sign, but we also were told in predraft meetings with the family that he was willing to play pro ball and forgo college,” Brian Cashman said to The Times. “We rolled the dice and took our chances. Everybody has a right to change their mind.”
I’ve long wondered where Cole would fit in with the Yanks’ plans, and I asked Keith Law that question a few months ago. He believed Cole would be ready for the Major League pen right now and would be the organization’s second best pitching prospect behind Manny Banuelos. Instead, Cole, who thinks he could pitch in the majors by September, will wind up as the key piece to a club hoping to rebuild.
No matter where he goes, though, the Yankees expect to see big things. “At some point in his life, maybe he wants to become a Yankee again,” Oppenheimer said to Kepner. “I don’t want to ruin that by having some bitter attitude toward the guy. I do think he really likes playing baseball, and genuinely he’s a good kid.”