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Gerrit Cole gives Yankees what they were missing in quest for a championship

Gerrit Cole speaks to the media at a

Gerrit Cole speaks to the media at a news conference on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. Credit: Corey Sipkin

SAN DIEGO — About a week after the Yankees’ six-game ALCS loss to the Astros, Brian Cashman made a comment that got plenty of traction — and not all of it positive from his fan base —at an end-of-season news conference.

“It’s hard to improve on a 103-win team,” Cashman said.

Tuesday night the longtime Yankees’ GM unquestionably did.

Cashman at last secured righthander Gerrit Cole, getting a player he called his “white whale” with a record-setting contract for a pitcher, nine years and $324 million.

The 29-year-old Cole must pass a physical — he arrived Wednesday in New York — before the deal becomes official.

For that reason, Cashman and Cole’s new manager, Aaron Boone, spoke in mostly hypothetical terms about the pitcher.

But not really.

“You’re talking about a guy that’s the best of the best, a guy certainly in the prime of his career,” Boone said late Wednesday morning. “The chance to add him to what we feel like is a great team, that’s exciting.”

Boone added later: “You’re just hopefully finishing off a team that can potentially win a championship. We feel like the potential to add an elite talent with what we feel like is elite makeup, any time you have a chance to do that, that can be a game-changer.”

The Yankees went 103-59 last season in capturing their first AL East crown since 2012 and swept the Twins in the ALDS before falling to the Astros.

Though the Yankees contended that their lack of clutch hits cost them vs. Houston, when free agency began, Cashman was given the go-ahead from managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner to make an all-out play for Cole. The righthander went 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA last season, then 4-1 with a 1.72 ERA in the postseason.

Steinbrenner entered the winter preferring to stay under the highest luxury tax threshold of $248 million, but the owner early on decided that wasn’t going to dictate the offseason. Not when it came to a player that could, perhaps, give the Yankees their first World Series title since 2009 and more after that.

The Yankees are unlikely to be under the highest threshold next season, though they could shed salary via trade, such as the $17 million owed J.A. Happ, to get back under it. Regardless, priority No. 1 was Cole and the Yankees, with Steinbrenner actively involved toward the end of the negotiations with Cole’s agent, Scott Boras, eventually got their man.

Indeed, even as the Yankees continue their years-in-the-making overhaul of their baseball operations department — headlined by an ever-increasing emphasis on analytics and performance science — nothing beats an old-fashioned boatload of cash when it comes to landing an in-demand free agent.

“We’re just using every tool in the toolbox,” Cashman said. “Not just the big hammer [money], but it doesn’t mean the big hammer’s not still available.”

The news, while mostly expected within the industry, still sent shockwaves across the Manchester Grand Hyatt when it broke late Tuesday night. Those were felt most dramatically in the AL East, which the Yankees won in 2019 going away.

“Gerrit has been amazing the last few years,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who led Boston to a World Series title in 2018. “Obviously for us, it’s another challenge, another hurdle. But we’ve been used to this. That’s the way it works. They got better, and we still have time to get better, too.”

Cora said he ran into Mike Fiore, one of Boras’ top deputies, in the lobby Tuesday morning and made a good-natured, last-gasp attempt at steering Cole elsewhere.

“I talked to Mike early in the day [Tuesday] and I said, ‘please keep him on the West Coast,’” Cora smiled. “I saw his face and I was like, ‘he’s no—t going to the West Coast.’ We knew, I knew, that they were going to try to get better and they recognized that starting pitching was something they needed, and they got one of the best ones.”

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