Into the Multiverse: Cole’s a Yankee “Today. Tomorrow. Forever.”

What could’ve happened with certain tweaks in the historical timeline of professional sports. What if Mickey Mantle hadn’t crashed head on into Joe DiMaggio, ending the latter’s career almost instantly? What if the Lakers never traded for Kobe, allowing him to remain with the Michael Jordan owned Hornets? What if Tony Romo had been traded to the Saints in 2006?

Without further ado, here’s the 3rd installment of what I like to call, Into the Multiverse:


CONTEXT

If you’re unfamiliar with the name, I don’t totally blame you. I mean, I’m absolutely livid that you haven’t already read the countless other pieces I’ve written throughout the years that reference one of the games’ elite arms, but aside from that I totally get how you could be in the dark about the unassuming pitching phenom. He dazzled on the mound in Houston for the past two years, and after months of hype and speculation surrounding his free agency, he commanded the largest pay day for a pitcher in baseball history. His path to Pinstripes has been a long and winding road of sorts, but seemingly for as long as he’s been able to hold a baseball, the Yankees have been a part of his journey.

Cole was born and raised in Southern California, in a town called Orange that sits just outside of Anaheim. But rather than root for the California Angels Anaheim Angeles Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Los Angeles Angels, who played less than 30 minutes from his childhood home, Gerrit idolized the Bronx Bombers. Don’t believe me? Here’s a picture of his 11 year old self at Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, professing his lifelong loyalty to the New York Yankees.

The Yankees, shared a mutual admiration for Cole, as they chose him with their first round selection in the 2008 MLB Draft. Gerrit was fresh out of High School, and clearly already turning heads as this was the 28th overall selection that June. Daringly, or wisely you might say considering how things panned out, he turned down the opportunity to live out his childhood dream of pitching in the Yankees organization, and opted to play college ball for UCLA. He built upon that early hype that led to the Yankees selecting him, and became the first overall pick of the 2011 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates following three impeccable seasons at the helm of the Bruins’ rotation.

It wasn’t long until New York came a knocking once more, following a crushing defeat at the hands of the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS, the Yankees contacted the ready-to-rebuild Pirates about acquiring Cole. Many thought the deal was imminent, including myself, but the Yankees balked at the asking price of Miguel Andujar in addition to other prospects. The Pirates then swiftly dealt their ace to the Houston Astros who were a bit more glad-handed with their prospects, and the rest as they say is history.

The Yankees eventually got their guy, inking Cole to a record-destroying 9-year $324 million pact on December 18th. With the Bronx Bombers seemingly being an ace-away from their 28th World Series ring for the last 3 years, it appears as though the former ‘Stro is the right man at the right time. With Cole set to take the bump at least once a week for the Yanks, the league will be in for a rough Summer once the season is able to get underway.

Gerrit Cole’s Yankee debut was delayed a bit further due to the postponement of Opening Day amid the current public health crisis; but what if #45 already got his Yankee years underway? What if Cole had been a Yankee since before they dished out the mega millions to him this Christmas? It’s hard to guess at how he might’ve fared in the Yankees farm system after being drafted back in 2008 at the age of 17, way too many variables come into play about his development through the years and questions about whether the perennial win-now front office would’ve been patient enough to not flip him for a more immediate contributor. But what if the Yankees were willing to execute that trade in December of 2017, like so many around baseball thought that they would…


2018

On December 11th of 2017, the New York Yankees swindled ex-Yankee superstar turned Marlins’ GM, Derek Jeter, into giving them Giancarlo Stanton (more his doing than Jeter’s) for next to nothing as a return. Now they follow that up by trading Miguel Andujar and Chance Adams for Gerrit Cole, a man who immediately becomes their ace.

Moving forward with an offseason, now being compared to the Winter of 2008-2009, the Yankees still re-sign CC Sabathia at the end of the month for a two year deal that’ll coincide with the end of his Hall of Fame career. Searching for their full-time infield (now with even less internal options after trading Andujar) the Yankees sign Neil Walker, trade for Brandon Drury, and do so with an eye on a particular 2019 free agent who can man the hot corner for the foreseeable future…

Cole takes the hill in Toronto on March 29th to open the season, and iron-mans his way to an additional 31 starts on the year. He still shines the way he did in 2018 in our timeline to the tune of a 2.88 ERA and 276 strikeouts, but gets an uptick in wins (19 instead of 15) due to the superior run support in New York.

The Yankees’ offense loses a bit of luster in the early going without Andujar’s surprising efforts with the lumber. But with him not around when early infield injuries happen, the Yanks call up Gleyber Torres on March 31st as opposed to April 21st. The 21 year old plays an additional month of baseball for the Yankees, finishing 2018 with more Andujar-esque numbers: .278 batting average, 29 home runs, and 95 runs batted in. He places second in the rookie of the year race for the AL.

Come July, the Yankees’ starting pitching depth is no longer the foremost concern, they desperately need to address the hole on the left side of the infield which is being haphazardly patched by platoon men Brandon Drury, Neil Walker, and Ronald Torreyes. Luckily for New York, a team they’re all-to-familiar with is looking to clean house beginning with their All-Star shortstop/3rd baseman. Manny Machado is constantly stirring the pot about a move to the Bronx, and with a now-legitimate need for his services, the Yankees are happy to oblige the Orioles’ demand of a package headlined by prospects Justus Sheffield and Estevan Florial.

So the Yankees roll into the 2018 postseason, with this lineup:

  1. Aaron Hicks, CF
  2. Aaron Judge, RF
  3. Manny Machado, 3B
  4. Giancarlo Stanton, DH
  5. Luke Voit, 1B
  6. Didi Gregorius, SS
  7. Gleyber Torres, 2B
  8. Gary Sanchez, C
  9. Andrew McCutchen, LF

The Yanks still send Severino to the bump in their Wild Card Game route of the Athletics, opting to save Cole for a Game 1 matchup with the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS and boy does that payoff. Here’s how that series plays out:

  • Game 1: Yankees win 4-1
    • Pitching – Rather than watch JA Happ get shelled for 5 runs through 2 innings of work, the fans who filled Fenway Park that night are treated to a master class in pitching, courtesy of the Gerrit Cole and Chris Sale. Cole doesn’t get battered by Boston, instead only surrendering a lone run through 7 innings of work (his actual numbers from Game 1 of the Houston/Cleveland series in our timeline). He passes the ball off to David Robertson for the 8th and then Aroldis Chapman shuts things down in the 9th.
    • Hitting – Machado doesn’t add anything in the way of offense with his strikeout hat trick. But he didn’t have to considering that the surging Luke Voit drove in two runs, Didi Gregorius added another, and Aaron Judge homered in the 9th to seal the deal.
  • Game 2: Yankees win 8-2
    • Pitching – Whatever mediocrity that Masahiro Tanaka produces in games 1-162 is quickly erased when he takes the mound in the playoffs. He turns in a strong outing of 5 innings while only surrendering a single run off a Xander Bogaerts blast in the fourth. Dellin Betances comes on and surrenders a run in the pair of innings he hurls. Chad Green and Zach Britton team up to close the remaining two innings.
    • Hitting – Gary Sanchez’s monster, 4 RBI performance is the headline of a day at the plate to write home about for the Bombers. Judge opened up the day by ambushing David Price for a homer in the first, McCutchen drove one in a bit later, and Manny Machado hits a two-run shot to solidify a two game lead for the Yankees.
  • Game 3: Red Sox win 16-1
    • Pitching – Welp…the score says all you need to know about this one I suppose. Sevy got rocked and the bullpen didn’t supply much of a stopper once things got going.
    • Hitting – Didi Gregorius’ groundout plated Luke Voit in the 4th inning…that was all the offense that the Yankees could muster in this one.
  • Game 4: Yankees win 5-4
    • Pitching – The Yankees send CC Sabathia to the mound for Game 4 of the series and he allows 3 runs in 3 innings of work. The bullpen limits the Sox to a single add on run for the remainder of the contest, and leave it to the offense from there.
    • Hitting – In our timeline, the Yankees muster just a single run via Brett Gardner’s 6th inning sac fly, before some 9th inning semi-heroics lead to a more palatable 4-3 loss. Gardner’s sac fly stands, but there ends up being no chance for the Yanks to bat in the 9th inning because of Manny Machado’s 4 RBI game, which included a 3-run homer to take the lead in the 7th inning.

The Yankees use big games at the right time by Gerrit Cole and Manny Machado to knockoff baseball’s top seeded, Boston Red Sox, in 4 games. This not only means that they’ll be squaring off against the Houston Astros for a second consecutive year in the ALCS, but there’ll be an entirely new champion of baseball for 2018 since the Red Sox have been eliminated.

The Astros and Yankees have a hyper-competitive series in the 2018 ALCS. The teams are far more evenly matched than the year before, with the Yankees now capable of matching Houston’s pitching staff game for game.

In our timeline, Houston’s pitching staff folded beneath the pressure of Boston’s high octane offensive attack. If we swap Boston’s offense for New York’s the same holds true, with the Yankees battering the Astros in just five games behind strong offensive showings by their jam-packed lineup.

The Yankees reach the World Series in 2018, ready to do battle with the Dodgers. Again in this series, we see this altered timeline mirror our own quite a bit: the Dodgers struggle to contain a superior offense, most notably the playoff troubles of Clayton Kershaw bubble over exponentially to the tune of losses in game 1 and the decisive game 5.

The Yankees clinch their 28th World Series Championship by running through a stacked playoff gauntlet of the three most menacing foes of the past few years.


Off-season 2018-2019

Heading into the winter, following the coronation of a renewed Evil Empire, New York’s top brass actually has a very important decision to make about what superstar addition was most essential to their march towards contention. Sure the Yankees can throw caution to the wind and pay them both mega-millions over the course of the next two winters in typical win-now fashion. But in doing so, the Yankees are jeopardizing their ability to pay their fast-emerging young core for the foreseeable future; holding tight to Machado and Cole could mean letting Judge, Sanchez, Severino, or Torres walk in the coming years.

Cole was an absolute stud in 2018, and the trade for him essentially guaranteed a night off for an otherwise overworked bullpen. He’s entering his final year of team control for the Bombers with $13.5 million set to be paid after an arbitration hearing, and perhaps more unsettling is the fact that he’s expressed a desire to wade into the free agent waters next winter in search of the best possible deal.

Machado had a pretty good half season in pinstripes and is a free agent right now. His first taste of victory has left him enamored with the Bronx, so while Scott Boras is asking him to shoot for the moon, he’s a bit more inclined to stay firmly planted in New York if they can present a number north of $300 million over the next decade.

Both thirdbase and starting pitching are deemed positions of need for the Yankees, but Brian Cashman understands that their are cheaper alternatives to Manny Machado available right now. So the Yankees extend a qualifying offer and lowball him in the months that follow. When Machado inks a deal with the San Diego Padres in the lead up to Spring Training, the Yankees are quick to snag DJ LeMahieu and Troy Tulowitzki on cost-effective deals in his place.

To further sure-up their starting rotation, the Yankees still trade for James Paxton. However since they already parted ways with Justus Sheffield in their pursuit of Manny Machado, they’ll now be forced to give up either a package deal surrounding Clarke Schmidt or a straight up trade that sends Deivi Garcia to Seattle. Considering Garcia’s higher upside I think the Yanks’ll be a bit more inclined to push the former deal ahead.


2019

The reigning World Series Champs roll into the 2019 season poised to contend again, their opening day lineup looks almost identical to what we saw posted in our timeline:

  1. DJ LeMahieu, 3B
  2. Aaron Judge, RF
  3. Giancarlo Stanton, LF
  4. Luke Voit, DH
  5. Gary Sanchez, C
  6. Greg Bird, 1B
  7. Gleyber Torres, 2B
  8. Troy Tulowitzki, SS
  9. Brett Gardner, CF

We can’t pretend that the injury bug didn’t end up biting the Bombers, but luckily the same cast of characters that saved the Yankees’ season in our timeline are all still very much in play here: Gio Urshela, Mike Tauchman, Mike Ford, and Clint Frazier.

Gerrit Cole finds a way to build on last season even more: 20-5 record, 2.50 ERA, 326 Strikeouts. It’s hard to say whether or not Cole now anchoring a staff all his own would prove to be the difference maker in the Cy Young voting, as opposed to getting beat out for the award by Justin Verlander of the Astros, but regardless he has proven to be every bit worth the trade last winter.

The Bombers hit the playoffs and draw the Minnesota Twins in an ALDS matchup that has been one-sided for decades. Keeping with tradition (and our own timeline) the Bombers blast Minnesota in quick fashion, and look to a rematch with the Houston Astros in the ALCS for the third year in a row.

The outcomes of a number of these games are altered by new pitching match-ups on both sides:

  • Game 1: Yankees win 7-1
    • Gerrit Cole takes the hill in the opening game of this series and only surrenders one run to the Astros while Zack Grienke, Ryan Pressley, and Bryan Abreu get lit up on the other end by the Yankees.
  • Game 2: Yankees win 2-0
    • Postseason Pitching Extraordinaire, Masahiro Tanaka, doesn’t take the ball in Game 1 but rather in Game 2. So his masterful shutout gets pushed back by a day, and boy does that pay dividends here. Rather than seeing the Astros win via Carlos Correa’s extra-inning heroics, the Yanks go up 2 games to none with the ‘Stro’s mustering all of 1 run total in their home ballpark.
  • Game 3: Yankees win 4-3
    • James Paxton takes the mound in Yankee Stadium, and with the Astros not having Cole to start opposite him, they go to the opener format they’d utilize in Game 6 of our timeline. This one ends in something of a nail-biter, as it takes a heroic Bomber bullpen effort to take the ball the distance and put the Yankees a win away from their second World Series appearance in as many years.
  • Game 4: Astros win 4-3
    • Luis Severino makes his first playoff appearance of the year in this one, and while his performance isn’t by any means tragic, the pair of runs he gives up early (along with the two Ottavino surrenders) are crucial. Grienke has a strong bounce-back game and keeps Houston from getting swept in this one.
  • Game 5: Yankees win 4-1
    • We finally get our battle of the Aces in this series as the Cy Young front-runners square off in a heated duel. Cole proves to be the better man, as the Yanks are finally able to get to Justin Verlander in the Bronx. The score reflects the series, with the Yankees vanquishing the Astros for a second consecutive season.

The 2019 World Series proved to be a bit of destiny for a Washington Nationals team who clawed their way back from a crippling loss of their top talent (Bryce Harper), to the mountain top of the sport. Given the way that things things transpired in the Fall Classic, it’s hard to definitively state that the Yanks would’ve fared all that much better in a series where home-field advantage literally meant nothing. If it came down to the same Game 7 scenario that the Astros faced, I like to think that Aaron Boone has the wherewithal to put Gerrit Cole in during crunch time…but whose to say we even see that moment again. I’ll air on the side of the feel-good story and give the Nationals their 2019 moment in the sun, even with a stacked Yankee lineup opposing them.


Conclusion

Gerrit Cole was always destined to dawn the Pinstripes at some point in his life, but a lot changes if his exodus to the Bronx takes place two years sooner:

  • The Yankees go to consecutive World Series in 2018 & 2019 with Cole at the helm of their rotation, keeping alive their streak of appearances in the Fall Classic in every single decade since the 1920s.
  • The Bombers capture their 28th Championship in 2018, instead of the Red Sox winning it.
  • Manny Machado never becomes a Dodger, which means he never makes that cringe-inducing attempt to takeout Jesus Aguilar’s leg at 1st Base (at least not during the 2018 Playoffs).
  • Jose Altuve’s walkoff homer in the 2019 ALCS doesn’t happen, so there’s never a “Don’t Rip My Shirt” incident to further ignite intrigue about the Astros’ cheating scandal.
  • The Pittsburgh Pirates get a new offensive centerpiece, Miguel Andujar, to pair on the infield with the exciting young tandem of Cole Tucker and O’Neil Cruz for years to come.

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