Blue Jays could get creative and competitive for Gerrit Cole in free agency

HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 10: Gerrit Cole #45 of the Houston Astros delivers the pitch against the Tampa Bay Rays during the seventh inning in game five of the American League Division Series at Minute Maid Park on October 10, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 10: Gerrit Cole #45 of the Houston Astros delivers the pitch against the Tampa Bay Rays during the seventh inning in game five of the American League Division Series at Minute Maid Park on October 10, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

Gerrit Cole will be the top free agent on the market this winter, and there are creative ways that the Blue Jays can make a very competitive offer to the unquestioned ace.

If you took a poll of fans of the Toronto Blue Jays and asked them what the number one need for this team going forward is, I’m confident than 95% or more would tell you that the need is in the pitching department. With a strong position player core led by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and more, there’s a lot of promise for offence in 2020 and beyond.

While there were some encouraging steps made by guys like Trent Thornton and Jacob Waguespack in 2019, there’s no question that the Blue Jays need to improve their starting rotation before they’ll be serious contenders for an AL playoff spot again. And as we’re forced to sit back and watch the playoffs without our beloved Blue Jays, there are several pending free agents performing well that can get the imagination going.

At the top of the list would be Houston Astro ace, Gerrit Cole, who dominated in Game 5 of the ALDS and sent the Rays home for the winter. It was Cole’s second win of the series, and his second straight untouchable performance. What he’s doing right now will only improve his free agent stock, and there’s no doubt that plenty of teams will be lining up to try and sign him this off-season.

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If you typed “Blue Jays” into a Twitter search last night, it confirmed that I’m not the only Blue Jay fan that’s dreaming about the idea of bringing Cole north of the border. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s going to be a tall order, both in terms of his contract term and dollar amount, but also in trying to convince him to play for Canada’s only team when there will be a lineup of potential suitors. The Blue Jays’ front office would have to make it worth it for Cole to decide on Toronto, and that will be tough no matter how you look at it. That said, there are plenty of ways the Blue Jays could make a creative and competitive offer for one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Because their current payroll situation is so flexible, they could realistically afford to pay Cole almost whatever they like, at least in 2020. And in my mind, that’s exactly the way they should be thinking about it.

Take for instance, Stephen Strasburg‘s current contract, which was signed for seven years and 175 million dollars. That money was not even distributed, and in 2019 he had a salary of 39.33 million between a base of 35 million, a partial signing bonus of 3.33 million, and another incentive reached that added another million on top. That’s a lot of dough. However, Strasburg will be making 25 million per season on an annual average over the life of the deal, so it all depends on how you look at it.

Where the Nationals got creative is what has me thinking the Blue Jays could do something similar in order to entice Cole to join their talented and emerging young squad. Because the Blue Jays’ core is mostly on rookie-level contracts right now, why not front-load a big offer to Cole? There are plenty of risks involved, but I think there’s a way the Blue Jays could pull it off that would make sense for both parties.

Going back to the Strasburg example, he was paid 15 million for the first two seasons, then it jumped up to 35 million for 2019, 25 million in 2020, then back down to 15 again for 2021-22 before finishing off with a monster figure of 45 million at the end. What gave Strasburg extra incentive to sign on the dotted line was the fact that the Nationals included opt-outs after the 2019 season and the 2020 season. Essentially, Strasburg could bolt after a big pay day and test the market if things weren’t working out like he’d hoped. Now that the Nationals are in the NLCS, I’m going to assume that he’ll come back to Washington for his 25 million in 2020, but we’ll see what happens.

If the Blue Jays were to get creative like this for Cole, they could take a similar, but altered approach. We also have to factor in that the market has inflated in three years since Strasburg’s deal was done, and Cole is arguably a more valuable starter at this point. Anyway, here’s how I would draw up an offer of seven years and 225 million (that’s my guess on what he’ll get).

Year 1- 45 million
Year 2- 40 million
Year 3- 30 million (opt-out)
Year 4- 30 million (opt-out)
Year 5- 20 million
Year 6- 20 million
Year 7- 40 million

You could throw in all kinds of bonuses, incentives, or other things to get creative, but this is the meat and potatoes of the idea.

The Blue Jays can afford to make a ridiculous overpay of 85 million in the first two years, even if they aren’t realistically planning on contending in 2020. They’re looking at a projected payroll in the 60 million dollar range, so adding 45 million, while an asinine figure, could be done and still only bring the Blue Jays in the 100-110 million range. That’s a far cry from what they were spending in 2015-2017 as contenders.

By year two and especially three, the Blue Jays should have transitioned into contenders, assuming that the talented core continues their development and trajectory. The idea of pairing Cole with Nate Pearson in a few years could be a devastating duo in the rotation, and there’s enough talent between guys like Thornton, Waguespack, Ryan Borucki, Anthony Kay, and more that could fill out the starting group.

Much like the Strasburg contract, I’ve added opt-outs after year three and four. Because Cole is still just 29 years old, he would be 32 or 33 if he exercised them, and that would still allow him to pursue another big contract if he was healthy and still a frontline pitcher. The timeline could also work for the Blue Jays, as they’ll have a younger contingent of arms coming by then (hopefully) that could include Alek Manoah, Eric Pardinho, Simeon Woods Richardson, Adam Kloffenstein, Justin Williams and more. It’s also about the time that guys like Vlad Jr., Bichette, and the rest of the core will be getting contract increases, if they haven’t signed extensions by then anyway.

I realize the proposal comes with a lot of risk, but Cole is the type of pitcher that could make a significant difference and those arms don’t hit the free agent market every year. There won’t be another starter with his combination of talent and youth to hit the market for at least a few more years, which is another reason I think the Blue Jays should at least consider it this off-season. There’s always the threat of regression or injury, but guys like Cole make the difference between contenders and pretenders, even if you have to invest in them a year or two early.

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Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro have talked about the potential for a busy winter, but I also feel like they’ve tried to throw some cold water on immediate free agent expectations. That said, I hope they at least ask about Cole and try to put together a competitive offer this winter, and while my idea above is definitely in the “dreaming” category, I don’t think it’s that outlandish.