No one ever expected the Nationals to make a World Series run in 2019.
In that respect, they were playing with house money from the moment Juan Soto's bases-clearing liner glanced off of Trent Grisham's glove, propelling them past the Brewers in the NL Wild Card Game on their championship path. That two-out, bases-loaded mash in the eighth inning lifted the fog for a Nationals franchise that had come up short time and time again.
None of it would have happened without Max Scherzer, who, since signing a record-setting seven-year, $210 million contract in Jan. 2015, has kept the Nationals in the fight, going 79-39 with an unfathomable 2.74 ERA while helping lead Washington to three postseason appearances in five years.
Scherzer has written the final bullets of his Hall of Fame resume in Washington, authoring two no-hitters (one nearly a perfect game) in his first season alone. Scherzer has won two Cy Young Awards since moving to the National League and has been a finalist five times. Delivering a World Series title was merely icing on the cake.
Expectations won't be so fair for Gerrit Cole in New York. How could they be? Owners of 27 World Series titles, the Yankees have been a pillar of dominance for over a century, The Cardinals, with 11 championships, are the next-closest club to matching New York's success.
Winning is so expected in New York, it was viewed as an abject organizational failure when the Yankees neglected to deliver a championship in the last decade. When Cole signed his cartoonish contract – to be paid $324 million over the next nine seasons – the expectation was clear: return the pinstripes to the mountaintop.
The Yankees are betting $36 million a year that Cole – who went 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA and 326 strikeouts in 2019 – will deliver more than he doesn't.
Cole enters New York on strong footing, fleeing a cheating scandal in Houston where his most notable outing was the one he never made – when he was left sitting in the bullpen, unused, in Game 7 of the World Series as Washington took command of the Series. He departs Houston keeping all of the good – a 5-2 postseason record with a 2.17 ERA in October since 2018 – while taking none of the bad with him to his new home.
Scherzer was 30 when he first took the mound for the Nationals and has arguably lived up to his contract better than any star to a mega-deal before him. Can Cole, entering his age 29 season, match that level of success with the Yankees?
To frame this up nicely, let's flesh out Scherzer's accomplishments that can be quantified.
In five seasons with the Nationals, Scherzer has collected about every accolade imaginable as a five-time All-Star, two-time Cy Young Award winner, two-time wins leader and three-time NL strikeout leader. He's also recorded two immaculate innings (2017, 2018), meaning he's struck out all three batters in an inning using the minimum number of pitches (nine) possible.
Scherzer was an All-Star twice (2013-14) before joining Washington, won an AL Cy Young Award in 2013, and led the AL in wins twice (2013-14).
Cole enters 2019 as a three-time All-Star, one-time AL ERA leader (2019) and one-time AL strikeout leader (2019). Without getting too in the weeds, Cole is starting from a similar level of success with the Yankees as Scherzer did with the Nationals. It's what comes next that will mean all the difference.
The most logical way to answer the unanswerable, it seems, is to quantify what Scherzer's presence has meant to the franchise in terms of postseason success.
Scherzer has made 10 postseason appearances for the Nationals, eight of them starts, going 3-2 with a 2.92 ERA. All three wins came in the 2019 postseason and all six of his appearances during that run were made in games that resulted in Nationals victories. In that respect, the Nats have paid Scherzer $21 million per postseason appearance ($210M / 10 postseason appearances), six of which have resulted in postseason wins and a World Series title.
Of course in reality they've gotten much greater bang for their buck than just Scherzer's postseason success, but for the sake of the argument, let's agree it cost them $126 million ($21M x 6 postseason appearances) for Scherzer's contributions to a World Series title.
For Cole to bring that same value – or greater – to the Yankees, he'd need to win at least one World Series by 2024 at a theoretical cost of $194.4 million to the franchise. That's a highly imperfect (read: foolish) and roundabout way of saying the question you're really asking is: Could you see the Yankees winning a World Series with Cole in the next five years? And would it be worth the additional freight they're willing to pay to make that happen?
If Cole wins two World Series titles over the next nine seasons, he's every bit as worth it to the Yankees ($324 million) as what Scherzer was worth to the Nationals (albeit $114 million more expensive). Yes, Cole can match Scherzer in value to their respective clubs. Will he?
The Yankees sure hope so.
It may take years to properly answer this question. For now, we can begin to proffer a guess on Thursday, when the World Series champion Nationals host the Yankees on Opening Day.
When Scherzer and Cole are on the mound.