SAN DIEGO — The Yankees have raised the stakes for their pursuit of another World Series title by acquiring Gerrit Cole, the top free-agent prize of this off-season, with the richest contract ever given to a pitcher: $324 million over nine years. The club had made Cole its overwhelming priority this off-season, ultimately beating the Los Angeles Angels and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the race for the right-hander.
Cole, 29, agreed to the deal, which is pending a physical examination in the coming days, late Tuesday night, according to two people with knowledge of the deal. Cole’s deal, which gives him an average annual salary of $36 million, includes a full no-trade clause and allows him to opt out after the fifth year.
Cole and the Yankees shattered the record for the largest contract ever awarded a pitcher, a mark that had been set just a day earlier: Stephen Strasburg re-signed with the Washington Nationals for seven years and $245 million on Monday, setting records for the largest total commitment and the highest average annual value for a pitcher. Cole bested both, and also surpassed the deal of the Angels superstar outfielder Mike Trout, which has an average annual value of $35.5 million.
Once known for the free-spending approach of George Steinbrenner, the former owner who died in 2010, the Yankees have generally exercised more discipline with their payroll in recent years under his son Hal, the current principal owner. But to end their World Series drought — their last championship came in 2009 — the Yankees recognized the need to add an elite starting pitcher.
They singled out Cole, who helped lead the Houston Astros to the World Series last season, knocking off the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. To acquire him, the Yankees offered the largest contract they have given to any player, topping the 10-year, $275 million deal they gave infielder Alex Rodriguez before the 2008 season. Cole’s deal alone represents the most money the Yankees have spent in free agency in one off-season since the winter before the 2014 season, in which they doled out nearly half a billion to several players.
The Yankees wooed Cole, a pitcher they had coveted for years, with their deep pockets, their winning tradition, their ability to compete for a World Series and a recruiting pitch that included dinner and a four-hour meeting at the Fashion Island Hotel in Newport Beach, Calif., last week.
The contingent of Yankees officials sent to recruit Cole included General Manager Brian Cashman; Manager Aaron Boone; Michael Fishman, the data-savvy assistant general manager; Matt Blake, the team’s new pitching coach; and Andy Pettitte, the five-time Yankees champion (and former Astro) who thrived in pinstripes. Boone invited Pettitte to the meeting because he knew Cole, who grew up in Southern California as a fan of the Angels and the Yankees, considered him one of his favorite players.
The Yankees have not reached or won the World Series since 2009. They have come close; they fell one game short of reaching the championship round in the 2017 playoffs and two games short last season.
Cashman has said throughout this off-season that improving his team, which won 103 games during the 2019 season and 100 in 2018, would not be easy. The Yankees had one of the best offenses and bullpens in baseball, but their starting rotation was plagued by both poor performances and numerous injuries. Their starting pitchers finished the season with a 4.51 earned run average, 15th in the major leagues.
Cole will instantly improve the Yankees’ starting rotation and almost assuredly makes them one of the World Series favorites for the 2020 season. He went 24-6 with a 2.39 earned run average and 373 strikeouts last year, including the postseason. From May 22 through the end of the playoffs, he lost just one game as he put together one of the greatest stretches in major league history, posting a 1.59 E.R.A. and 258 strikeouts over 169⅓ innings.
The Yankees twice tried to acquire Cole before, drafting him in 2008 but could not persuade him to forgo his commitment to U.C.L.A., and then trying to trade for him when he was a Pittsburgh Pirate. Cashman recently referred to him as the team’s “white whale.” On Tuesday, they finally reeled him in.