Keidel: Cole Signing Signals Return To Yankees’ ‘Evil Empire’ Days

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Admit that you missed this. 

The New York Yankees, who rebuilt their team into a titan through prudent drafts and deft trades and a fertile farm system, took a quick trip back to pricey winters past. 

The most revered and reviled team in sports dusted off the Darth Vader mask and made it rain on Gerrit Cole, signing the stud pitcher to a nine-year, $324 million deal just in time to fit him under their Christmas tree. In the process, they reminded the rest of MLB that, when they want to, the Yankees can still flex their payroll and prestige beyond the means of any other team. They can overwhelm free agents with cash, or send emissaries CC Sabathia and Andy Pettite to remind them of the team's cachet. 

And unlike other spending splurges from the depths of their Evil Empire days — which came with mixed reactions and results — this move was quite clear, quite obvious and equally essential. No one with perspective and a pulse can deny that this had to happen if the Yankees wanted to break through that membrane between winning the AL East and winning the World Series. They kept bumping up against the Astros, Cole's former team, and the conga line of aces they trotted to the mound every playoff series, which always defined the difference between the two clubs. 

Gerrit ColeTroy Taormina/USA TODAY Images

So the Yankees solved two problems with one signature. They stole Cole from the enemy while dropping him gently onto the front end of their rotation. With their volcanic lineup and nuclear bullpen, their starting staff has been the speed bump on their yearly October drive. So instead of a stew of aging and injured pitchers leading their rotation, the Yanks now have Cole, Luis Severino, James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka, making them instant, early favorites to win the 2020 Fall Classic. 

For once, no one can doubt the bona fides of the purchase or the player. Cole had become obscenely good over the last two years. In 2018, he went 15-5 with a 2.88 ERA in 32 starts, striking out 276 batters in just 200 innings. Then he went Neo in 2019, posting a pitching line for the ages. His record was 20-5, and he led the American League with a 2.50 ERA while fanning an MLB-best 326 hitters in 212 innings. The only reason he didn't win the AL Cy Young was because Justin Verlander was more popular. By any objective measure, Cole was the best pitcher on the planet this year.  

For the bean counters who fret over giving Cole a nine-year deal for five years of great pitching, this is just the distorted nature of the business. They had to overpay on the back end to get the front-end dominance. At 29, Cole should be sublime until at least age 34, depending on how he cares for his body and how deftly he avoids injury. 

And this was a PR move as much as a pitching move. The Yankees had passed on an army of talented players in recent years, which often proved to be wise but also left fans wondering how slavish the Bronx Bombers had become to dollars and cents over common sense. Fortune favors the bold, and the team with the most bank. So while fans were comforted by the more prudent ways the Yanks shaped their team, you also knew that the last rungs up that World Series ladder required a moment or two outside their financial comfort zone.  

And with more teams in the Yankees' financial orbit, signing players to nine-digit deals, the Yankees need not feel any guilt nor should they apologize for joining the spending orgy that once made them singularly hated among the have-nots. Almost every MLB club has some kind of lucrative TV deal that pumps cash in their coffers like a fuel nozzle at a gas station. 

The Yankees, like the Dallas Cowboys, like Notre Dame football or Duke basketball, are good for business. We say we hate dynasties and empires because we want to sound fair, that we want equal pay and play from the princes and paupers of sports. But the TV ratings and merchendising suggest business is booming when there's a stand-alone team to love or loathe. 

And the Yankees have always fit the role of fabulous and infamous with equal aplomb. For a century, the Bombers have had an uncanny knack for finding (or buying) great players of their own, or just poaching yours when they can't. Depending on your loyalties, they are anyone from Lady Liberty to Gordon Gekko, the fruits of the American dream or the symbol of financial inequity.  

A move like this comes from the top, from the man who owns the team, not the men who run it. Hal Steinbrenner summoned his father's spirit and ditched his self-styled, numbers geek coda to make a move that screams Evil Empire. After finishing the rare, calendar decade sans a World Series title, the Yankees are back in their ancestral perch as the talk and chalk of baseball, with $324 million worth of Cole in their Christmas stocking.  

Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel.