The Yankees made a fairly public transaction yesterday, officially singing Gerrit Cole with all the usually hoopla. There was the press conference, the ill-fitting jersey over the collared shirt and tie, and the awkward smiles for the camera.
Buried under all the noise and grandeur of Cole’s arrival was a tinge of melancholy:
Today, the Yankees announced they have signed RHP Gerrit Cole to a 9-year contract extending through the 2028 season with a player opt-out following the 2024 season.— New York Yankees (@Yankees) December 18, 2019
To make room on the 40-man roster, RHP Chance Adams has been DFA’d.
The Yankees had to DFA someone of course, because the 40-man roster was full. These things happen all the time, especially in the offseason, and Cole represents a monumental roster upgrade.
That they axed Chance Adams— of all people— is wistfully ironic. As recently as the 2018 calendar year, Cole and Adams were perceived as nearly equal in trade value. In fact, they were nearly traded for each other!
Chance Adams, future star
Adams was selected by the Yankees in the fifth round of the 2015 draft. He made the unusual conversion from college reliever to minor league starter. In doing so, he somehow gained velocity, jumping from the low 90s to a comfortable 95+ mph.
In 2016, he won the Kevin Lawn award as the organization’s best pitcher. Splitting time between High-A and Double-A, he posted a 2.69 RA9, 0.903 WHIP, and a 21.2 strikeouts-minus-walks rate across 127 1⁄3 innings. Naturally, he starting popping up on prospect lists that winter. Minor League Ball’s John Sickels ranked him the #7 Yankee propsect and gave him a B+ grade.
He followed up his breakout with a similarly superb 2017. Across six Double-A and 21 Triple-A starts, Adams’s 2.45 RA9 shined. Fans clamored for his call-up late in the season, but were denied— passing him over in favor of the Luis Cessas, Bryan Mitchells, and Caleb Smiths already on the 40-man.
Prior to the 2018 season, his prospect star was peaking. Minor League Ball bumped him up to the organization’s #3 prospect, trailing Gleyber Torres and Estevan Florial. He was a consensus top 100 prospect across baseball, listed 81st, 75th, and 51st by Baseball America, MLB.com, and Baseball Prospectus.
The Gerrit Cole trade (almost)
This is where Cole enters the fray. In what turned out to be his final season with the Pirates, he managed only a 4.08 FIP, 95 FIP-, and 23.1 percent strikeout rate. His 31 home runs were the second most in the NL. By any measure except raw fastball velocity, he was a thoroughly average pitcher, albeit with obvious potential for much more.
The Pirates spent the winter actively shopping Cole, which was one of the top story lines of the offseason. The most prominent suitor was the Yankees, who came THIS close to acquiring him.
On Gerrit Cole, sources say a deal with the Yankees is neither close nor imminent. The sentiment is same as last night: There’s room for a deal to be made, and they match up very well together. Both sides know that. Right now, it’s a staring contest.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) December 22, 2017
Pittsburgh wanted a premium prospect package in return. This included the Yankees’ top pitching prospect: Chance Adams.
Sources: Torres, Frazier and Adams remains the ask from the #Pirates— Jason Rollison (@jrollisonpgh) December 22, 2017
That was one prospect too many, and the deal never materialized. Cole was shipped off to the Astros instead on January 13, 2018. With Houston, he nearly doubled his strikeout rate, garnered Cy Young consideration in both 2018 and 2019, and earned a $324 million contract.
What could have been
Unfortunately, Adams went in the other direction. He suffered a velocity loss and was pounded in Triple-A, ultimately moving back to the bullpen. He did make his MLB debut, allowing 12 base runners and three home runs in 7 2⁄3 innings.
2019 proved to be a repeat of 2018, including 25 runs allowed in 25 1⁄3 MLB innings— all in relief. Now, he finds himself designated for assignment— making room for the ace for whom he was once nearly traded.
While Adams’ career certainly isn’t over— he’s still just 25— he’s unlikely to ever come close to the #2 starter ceiling for which he was projected. When a prospect’s future is written in digital ink, it seems so certain that it’s hard to picture any bust scenario. With thousands of minor leaguers, how could the 51st best overall prospect possibly fizzle out?
The problem isn’t just the astounding fragility of prospects. Rather, it’s nearly impossible to know a player has peaked when their in the middle of peaking. It always seems like there’s more mountain to climb; we never expect them to start sliding back down the slope.
Just as we expected two years ago, Gerrit Cole is a Yankee, and as a direct result, Chance Adams might not be anymore. It’s all the stuff in between that makes baseball so wonderful, but also heartbreaking.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. Tweets @depstein1983.