Brian Cashman has turned all his attention to righthander Gerrit...

Brian Cashman has turned all his attention to righthander Gerrit Cole.  Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

SAN DIEGO — The Yankees’ front-office contingent was seated at a corner booth at Seasons 52, the restaurant adjacent to the winter meetings hotel, when word leaked out late Tuesday night that Gerrit Cole was headed to the Bronx, for the whopping sum of $324 million over nine years.

What happened next was the equivalent of a victory lap for Brian Cashman & Co., deserving to be shot in dramatic slo-mo, like a scene from a Scorcese film. On the walk to the exit, Cashman first was stopped by new Angels manager Joe Maddon, who shook the hand of the smiling GM while adding, “Congratulations, man.”

Next was Twins GM Thad Levine, who was swept out of the Division Series by the Yankees last October, and he too complimented Cashman on a job well done.

You may think that early December, still weeks before Christmas, is a bit early for concession speeches, but as I witnessed this scene, that’s what came to mind. The Astros, Red Sox, Dodgers, Nationals, Brewers and whoever else considers themselves a contender for 2020 should have been waiting outside the door, ready to reach for Cashman’s hand as well.

Because it’s over now. The Death Star is indeed fully operational, and with Cole on board as the Yankees’ lethal No. 1, fronting a solid rotation previously manned by a bunch of elite 2s, everyone else is playing for second place. The decade-long title drought in the Bronx is about to come to a close. 

You know that’s what Cashman is thinking. Why else would he label Cole his “White Whale” and admit his obsession for this free agent, with a fervor we rarely hear from the Yankees any more, and a cash layout unprecedented for a pitcher. Plainly put, they weren’t going to be denied on Cole.

“I can't guarantee we're going to wind up with the player or not,” Cashman said Tuesday hours before the news broke. “I can just guarantee a championship-caliber effort on our part.”

Interesting choice of words by Cashman, inserting “championship” into his sales pitch. Cole is the King Maker of this whole offseason. Maybe not for every team Boras was trying to coax into the Cole derby, but definitely for the Yankees, and it’s the reason why Hal Steinbrenner has green-lighted Cashman to do whatever is necessary to fit him for pinstripes. Cole, 29, finished runner-up to Astros’ teammate Justin Verlander for the AL Cy Young this season, with a career-best 2.50 ERA and an MLB-leading 326 strikeouts. 

For historical context, this is straight from the 2009 playbook, when Cashman recruited CC Sabathia, then blew the field away by signing him to a then-record seven-year, $161 million contract. Ten months later, the Yankees were world champions.

This year, Cashman dusted off the same exact script to lure Cole away from his West Coast roots. First, the GM brought his staff — along with special adviser Andy Pettitte — to Scott Boras’ backyard in Newport Beach for a summit with Cole and his family, days ahead of the winter meetings in San Diego. Cashman not only wanted to jump the market, but make sure that Cole, despite his SoCal leanings, was amenable to taking the Yankees’ money. Lots of it.

“Just making sure they have a good feel for everything,” Cashman explained Tuesday afternoon. “And because our market is unique and different — we feel it's better than many of the other markets — it creates a lot of opportunities. But it's not necessarily for everybody. So I thought it was a good, very healthy dialogue and educational process.”

Cashman came away from that SoCal sit-down convinced that Cole could not only handle the competitive pressures of playing in the Bronx, but also the off-field package, especially the white-hot media spotlight. After what Cole accomplished during his walk year in Houston, turning in his best season as a pro with the most at stake, there’s no reason to think he can’t repeat that for the Yankees, over and over — or at least until his reported opt-out kicks in after the 2024 season.

There are no guarantees, of course. But the Yankees’ fixation on Cole, and their desire to back-burner the team’s entire offseason until he was signed, showed that Cashman viewed him as their savior, so to speak. Cole is the ace the Yankees sorely lacked, and he now fixes the one weakness that halted their title pursuit in the ALCS in two of the past three seasons.

How badly did the Yankees want Cole? A day earlier, Stephen Strasburg — the World Series MVP — signed a seven-year, $245 million deal to return to the Nationals. Cashman gave Cole nearly $80 million more, and did so gladly, with an ear-to-ear grin.

You think the Yankees are thrilled now? Just wait until October.