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Gerrit Cole heads to free agency with the Yankees among expected suitors

Gerrit Cole of the Astros delivers the pitch

Gerrit Cole of the Astros delivers the pitch against the Nationals during the first inning in Game 5 of the World Series at Nationals Park on Sunday. Credit: Getty Images/Patrick Smith

HOUSTON — After Game 7 of the World Series, Gerrit Cole at first didn’t bring the warm and fuzzy about his time with the Astros.

In fact, minutes after his team’s loss to the Nationals, the pending free agent already was describing that team in the past tense.

When an Astros public relations official asked him to address the group of reporters wanting to talk to him, he said, “I mean, I’m not employed,’’ according to the Houston Chronicle. “I’m not employed.”

Cole, sporting not an Astros cap but one with the logo of Boras Corp — founded and run by his agent, Scott Boras — eventually gave in. “All right,” he said, “as an affiliate of myself.”

He then answered questions amiably enough.

“A lot of good friendships,” Cole said of his two seasons with the Astros, in which he went 35-10 with a 2.68 ERA. “Learned a lot about pitching from my teammates, from my pitching coaches and staff, learned a lot more about the game from AJ Hinch, the Astros’ manager], and it was just a pleasure to play in the city of Houston.”

Cole, 29, is just about guaranteed to become one of the game’s highest-paid players. He is coming off one of the best seasons any player has ever had going into free agency — 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA, including 11-0 with a 1.51 ERA in his last 13 regular-season starts.

Cole, who rebounded from a loss in Game 1 — his first defeat since May 22 — with a seven-inning gem in Game 5, called the Astros “unique.”

“I’m going to have some friends from this clubhouse for the rest of my life,” he said. “You just don’t take situations like that for granted.”

But Houston is not among the favorites to land Cole for 2020 and beyond. Nor are the Yankees, who are interested in signing him but haven’t been as aggressive in dispensing big-money multiyear deals under Hal Steinbrenner as they were under George Steinbrenner.

It was people on the outside, still clinging to the days of The Boss, who unrelentingly predicted that Manny Machado would end up with the Yankees after the 2018 season ended. But from the start of free agency, they showed almost zero interest in the infielder, who ended up signing a 10-year, $300 million deal with the Padres in mid-February.

The Yankees, of course, have far more of a need for Cole (and starting pitching in general) than they did for Machado. They had some of their top talent evaluators in person at every one of Cole’s starts down the stretch.

They will be involved in his pursuit, but to what extent is not yet clear and might not be for a while. The baseball winter increasingly has become more marathon than sprint.

The favorite?

Though he grew up a Yankees fan, Cole was born in Newport Beach, California, just down the road from Angel Stadium, where he routinely attended games. Industry speculation throughout the postseason had the Angels — still reeling from the continued fallout over the death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs, desperate to change the story and already having hired Joe Maddon to manage — being green-lighted by owner Arte Moreno to spend big in free agency.

The nearby Dodgers, who have experienced nothing but October disappointment in recent years, also have the financial muscle and could strongly pursue Cole. The Phillies, with free-spending owner John Middleton, could be in play, and a “mystery” team (or two) is sure to crop up just because they always do at this time of year.

“I’m not sure I’ve had the time to really think about it other than Gerrit is one of my favorite players I’ve ever been around,” Hinch said, reflecting on Cole’s two seasons with Houston. “He’s meant a lot to this franchise.”

The top 10 free agent pitchers ranked by WAR:

Pitcher Age WAR

Gerrit Cole 29 7.4

Stephen Strasburg 31 5.7 — Can opt out of 4 years, $100 million remaining on contract.

Hyun-Jin Ryu 33 4.8

Zack Wheeler 30 4.7

Jake Odorizzi 30 4.3

Jose Quintana 31 3.3 — $11.5 million club option for 2020 ($1 million buyout).

Madison Bumgarner 30 3.2

Homer Bailey 34 2.9

Michael Pineda 30, 2.7

Yu Darvish 33, 2.6 — Can opt out of 4 years, $81 million remaining on contract.

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