Cubs free agent focus: Gerrit Cole


With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

When it comes to starting pitching, Gerrit Cole is exactly what the Cubs need.

Cole is a bonafide ace, a true No. 1 starter and one of the best starting pitchers in Major League Baseball. The Cubs are familiar with the 29-year-old from his NL Central days, as he played for the Pirates from 2013-17.

Cole has taken his game to an entirely different level since the Pirates traded him to the Astros in January 2018. The right-hander was a great starting pitcher in Pittsburgh; he’s blossomed into an elite one with Houston. Consider his regular season numbers with both clubs:

With Pirates: 127 starts, 782 1/3 IP, 3.50 ERA, 734 K (8.4 K/9), 1.217 WHIP, 3.27 FIP
With Astros: 65 starts, 412 2/3 IP, 2.68 ERA, 602 K (13.1 K/9), 0.962 WHIP, 2.67 FIP

The sample size with the Astros is half of Cole’s Pirates tenure. But the numbers show he’s allowing less baserunners and runs while striking out more batters than his Pirates days. Cole struck out 326 batters in 2019 alone, No. 1 in MLB.

Baseball is currently in the era of three true outcomes — home run, walk, strikeout — but the Cubs have one strikeout pitcher in their rotation. Yu Darvish struck out 229 batters in 2019 (No. 14 in MLB); no other Cubs starters reached the 200 plateau.

In short, Cole’s skillset is exactly what the Cubs need in their rotation. Unfortunately for them, the chances Cole joins the North Siders this winter are slim to none.

Cole is the top starting pitcher on the market and will likely smash the record for biggest free agent contract awarded to a pitcher (David Price signed a seven-year, $217 million deal with the Red Sox in December 2015). Roster Resource projects the Cubs’ 2020 payroll to be $219.8 million, not counting any potential offseason moves.

The Cubs exceeded MLB’s $206 million luxury tax threshold in 2019 by about $29 million and were taxed $6.8 million as a result. If they exceed the 2020 threshold ($208 million), they’ll be taxed 30 percent on all overages and see their draft position drop 10 spots — should they exceed the threshold by $40 million or more.

[RELATED: Where Cubs payroll stands as 2020 offseason ramps up]

In short, signing Cole would put the Cubs' payroll in an intense bind. They could shed salary this winter via trades, but they’d have to replace whomever they’d hypothetically deal away. Plus, Cole's Astros teammates predict he'll sign with a team in California.

Cole would be a major addition to the Cubs rotation. Never say never, but ultimately, signing him would create financial issues that doesn’t make the move realistic.

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