Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole sits in the dugout during spring training at...

Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole sits in the dugout during spring training at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

TAMPA, Fla. — When the Yankees gave Gerrit Cole his nine-year, $324 million contract in December 2019, Hal Steinbrenner was asked what had to happen to validate the record deal.

““We need to win some world championships,” Steinbrenner said back then. “And I believe we're going to do that — sooner rather than later.”

He also doubled down for emphasis, adding, “plural.”

Yet here the Yankees are, about to begin Cole’s third season in pinstripes, having only watched the World Series on TV the past two years. Cole still has plenty of time left to deliver for Hal, but he was supposed to be the final piece of the championship puzzle before the pandemic hit.

Since then, the rest of the AL East has grown stronger around him, while the Yankees currently are at a crossroads with the face of their franchise, Aaron Judge, who is hoping to get a contract extension by his Opening Day deadline. Throughout most of the Yankees’ history, placing a nine-year wager for at least one ring would normally be a safe bet. But Cole’s 0-for-2 so far in only a fraction of the overall 12-year drought, and he was asked after Tuesday’s live BP session if the Yankees’ title chances felt the same as they did when he put pen to paper in the Bronx three years ago.

“I picked this place because the window to win a World Series, in mind, was the entire length of the contract,” Cole said Tuesday. “That’s how I feel about that.”

The Yankees teed up the Cole signing by dipping below the CBT threshold in 2018 -- the first time they had done so since the payroll-braking device was created by the owners in 1997 -- and that allowed Steinbrenner to reset the tax rate after being penalized as a many-time offender. Getting Cole figured to be an indication that money again was no object to a Steinbrenner, and the new Yankees’ ace took that as an encouraging sign as well.

But two years of COVID-affected revenues have dialed back those cash spigots, according to Steinbrenner, and Cole witnessed a more conservative makeover this offseason. Rather than plug the shortstop vacancy with any of the marquee free agents available, including his former Astros teammate Carlos Correa, the Yankees opted to pick up the $50-million tab on Josh Donaldson as part of a deal to get Isiah Kiner-Falefa from the Twins.

That decision became more puzzling when Correa wound up with the Twins this week on a manageable three-year, $105.3-million deal (with a pair of opt-outs) and Trevor Story signed with the rival Red Sox for six years, $140 million. But Steinbrenner wasn’t shy about his reasoning. With the Yankees already sitting at a projected payroll of $251 million, he wasn’t looking to bump up against the next CBT threshold of $270 million, which those other moves would have done. So GM Brian Cashman took a more lateral route to improving the ’22 roster.

“I’m not really surprised,” Cole said. “We definitely have upgraded and Brian sometimes has to get creative as opposed to more straightforward. But that’s what makes him good. I think in baseball you want to be able to win a bunch of different ways. I assume you probably want to try to build a championship-quality team in more ways than one.”

Cole is going to be an integral part of that pursuit for a while. And his decision to pitch Tuesday in a second live BP session rather than a Grapefruit League game speaks to his more cautious approach to preparation during this condensed spring. Cole threw 43 pitches to the top half of the Yankee’ lineup and allowed only one hard-hit ball, a single by Aaron Judge through the left side of the infield.

Not appearing in a game before the last week of March is highly unusual for any spring training -- even with an April 7 opener -- but Cole’s plan has been to start slow before pushing down on the throttle for a goal of around 80-plus pitches for Opening Day. He could have lined up hitters as the CBA negotiations still raged, as some pitchers did, but with zero contact allowed with the Yankees, he didn’t want to take any chances before showing up in Tampa “under the watchful eye of the team.”

And with that in mind, Cole was asked what he thought about the Mets’ Max Scherzer pitching five innings Monday against the Marlins for his first start. Scherzer, a fellow Scott Boras client, signed a three-year, $140-million deal before the Dec. 2 lockout.

“The dude’s an animal,” Cole said. “He’s going to give you 100% all the time and his routine is his routine. We’re all individualized to a certain extent. I sacrificed some quality, I think, early throughout 2020 because the ramp-up was so quick. At this point, it’s a little different.”

Just how different these ’22 Yankees are from the team Cole thought he signed on with remains to be seen.


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