Astros starting pitcher Gerrit Cole throws against the Nationals during...

Astros starting pitcher Gerrit Cole throws against the Nationals during the first inning of Game 5 of the World Series in Washington on Oct. 27. Credit: AP/Patrick Semansky

SAN DIEGO — The Gerrit Cole sweepstakes — which very much involve the Yankees, who arrived here for the winter meetings on Monday ready to make a record-breaking offer to the star righthander — have begun in earnest.

With Stephen Strasburg coming off the board Monday after agreeing to a seven-year, $245 million deal to return to the Nationals, that leaves Cole as the remaining ace available.

And now, with some sort of financial bar set as the meetings began Monday at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, things could move quickly for him.

It’s a matter of how high, in both years and dollars, interested teams such as the Yankees, Angels and Dodgers are willing to go.

The Yankees and Angels, the pitcher's hometown team, are considered prohibitive favorites to sign Cole, 29, who went 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA last season with the Astros.

This much seems inevitable: The record-setting deal for a pitcher agreed to by Strasburg, 31, isn’t likely to be the record for long.

“[I] would think that means minimum 275 [million] and maybe there’ll be a ‘3’ in front of it,” one opposing team executive said of the contract that Cole could get. What he meant was a contract of $300 million or more.

Indications continue to be that Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner has given general manager Brian Cashman the green light to play in such financial deep water, though what is not yet known is what bar the owner has set.

The funds will not be limitless, as they very well could be for Angels owner Arte Moreno, whose franchise is desperate to make a splash.

Steinbrenner's current 2020 payroll obligations are about $212 million, and Yankees insiders have said he entered the offseason determined to keep the 2020 payroll under the third luxury-tax threshold of $248 million. But those same insiders say that in the last month or so, he has reached the conclusion that Cole is worth the kind of multiyear, big-money contract that Steinbrenner for the most part has tried to stay away from during his ownership tenure.

The appeal of signing Cole is obvious. Not only would he give the Yankees one of the best pitchers in the sport, but the money spent in paying the highest level of tax could be recouped in a variety of ways — ticket sales, merchandise, etc.

Those on the inside stress that doesn’t mean Steinbrenner will present a blank check to Scott Boras, who represents Strasburg and Cole, but the Yankees’ ultra-seriousness in the matter became clear last week.

That was when, at the behest of Steinbrenner, Cashman brought a contingent to California to meet with Cole and Strasburg. Cashman — who was accompanied by assistant GM Mike Fishman, manager Aaron Boone, new pitching coach Matt Blake and special adviser Andy Pettitte — would not have made the trip  without assurances from Steinbrenner that the Yankees meant business when it came to finances.

“You know if you’re a free agent, talent gets paid,” Cashman said of Cole on Sunday night in Stamford, Connecticut, after participating in the annual Heights & Lights event, which included the GM rappelling down a 22-story building. “Financial components are factored into every decision we make. It’s always part of the process.”

Boras spoke Monday afternoon after the Strasburg deal became official but declined to discuss how it might affect the Cole market.

Cashman, who spoke to the media Friday morning and Sunday night in Stamford, did not do so on Monday after getting to San Diego. There wasn’t much for him to add — publicly, anyway — to what he said over the weekend: His priority is improving the rotation and yes, the Yankees very much have their eyes set on Cole.

“Starting pitching and premier starting pitching,” Cashman said Sunday, “is really a focus for us more than anything else.”

Gerrit Cole may soon make this list obsolete, but these are the highest-paid players in baseball history, by average annual value:

1. Mike Trout, Angels $35,541,667 (2019-30)

2. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals $35,000,000 (2020-26)

3. Zack Greinke, D-backs $34,416,666 (2016-21)

4. Justin Verlander, Astros $33,000,000 (2020-21)

5. Nolan Arenado, $32,500,000 (2019-26)

T-6. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers $31,000,000 (2016-23)

David Price, Red Sox $31,000,000 (2016-22)

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers $31,000,000 (2019-21)

9. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers $30,714,286 (2014-18)

10. Max Scherzer, Nationals $30,000,000 (2015-21)

Manny Machado, Padres $30,000,000 (2019-28)

Source: Cot’s Baseball Contracts

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