I love the baseball offseason. Honestly, I almost like it as much as the regular season. There is so much intrigue. Who’s going to sign the big free agents? What trades are going to go down during the GM meetings? Who gets a qualifying offer? Asking myself why are the GM meetings even relevant anymore now that there’s Skype? Wondering who’s going to get protected in the Rule 5 draft only to remember nothing ever happens in the Rule 5 draft. Who will fall through the cracks on the free agent market? Then there is the relief when spring training finally starts.
Amidst all of this more interesting news, I often miss news or don’t take much notice to the arbitration process after players are tendered. Not sure why, but it might have something to do with the certainty. As soon as a deal gets done, we know it’ll eventually be in the books. The question that remains is how much squabbling goes on and who, the player or the ownership, gets a couple hundred thousand extra dollars in their pocket. You already know the player is coming back, provided there isn’t a trade, which would change it into something interesting as noted above.
Every Pirate fan knew that Gerrit Cole would remain a Pirate this offseason heading into his first year of arbitration even before the tenders came in. The only way he’d have been non-tendered would have been some clerical error where the wrong box on a form gets checked. He was going to get a contract offer that was likely below his number. Then he was going to go to arbitration, or so I thought.
Every part of Cole avoiding arbitration surprised me. Last Friday, Rob Biertempfel reported that he signed for $3.75 million. There was very little discussion of the deal, but it could be the most remarkable thing that happened this offseason.
First and foremost, $3.75 million seems incredibly low. As he does every off season, Kevin had a look where the Pirates arbitration numbers might come in. He put Cole at a cool $2.05 million above the real number. That’s not to knock on him. In fact, the rest were pretty damn close.
What is interesting about this deal is that with Scott Boras as his agent, an agent that will wring every last dollar out of a team because of his disdain for the pre-free agency process, this was agreed upon with no squabbling. As a comparison, check out this great Arbitration Visualization chart by Sean Dolinar at Fangraphs. You can hover over the little dots to see what both team and player are asking for in the unresolved arbitration cases. The Pirates and Tony Watson are haggling over a $400,000 difference. There are some cases as little as $250,000 in difference with other teams. So Boras, with his reams of data and being well-known for preparing exhaustive binders of research for his clients, also valued Cole at or around the $3.75M figure.
Is there a chance that the Pirates, already fresh off some voodoo to get Ivan Nova to sign what appears to be an under-market free agent deal, can sign Gerrit Cole to an extension this offseason? Could this arbitration settlement be a pre-cursor to that, hence the lack of blowback from Scott Boras? In July 2015, I examined the potential for an extension with Cole on a risk-based assessment. At the time, I concluded that a 7 yr/$63M to $74M deal would be the range. Keeping in mind that was a full season ago, it would reduce to a 6 year deal at this point accordingly.
I could be wrong on my reading of the tea leaves. Maybe both sides agreed that Cole did not have a good 2016 season and this is his true 1 year worth. But the door, more than at any time in Cole’s tenure, appears to be open for a long-term deal.