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Which free-agent pitcher could be the next Gerrit Cole?

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The final image we have of Gerrit Cole’s tenure with the Houston Astros was after Game 7 of the World Series, when he was wearing a Scott Boras Corporation cap instead of drinking champagne during a victory celebration.

Still, it was a wonderful two seasons in Houston for Cole, as he shed his previous rep as a talented but inconsistent right-hander to become arguably the best starter in the majors. He went 35-10 with a 2.68 ERA and a ridiculous 602 strikeouts in 412 ⅔ innings with the Astros — a big improvement over his final two seasons with the Pirates when he went 19-22 with a 4.12 ERA and 294 strikeouts in 319 innings.

Cole is now a free agent, likely to receive the biggest contract ever for a pitcher. Next up for the Astros, or any other team for that matter: Find Gerrit Cole 2.0.

We have a guy in mind. We’ll get to free agent Zack Wheeler in a moment and why he’s an interesting comp for where Cole was two years ago, but let’s first do a quick synopsis of how Cole made the leap after his trade to Houston.

Cole was the No. 1 overall pick out of UCLA in 2011 and had his best season with the Pirates in 2015, when he went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. His follow-up seasons were not as impressive, and the Astros traded four players to acquire him — with a clear idea on how to make Cole better.

The Pirates liked to emphasize two-seam fastballs down in the zone, the better to generate ground balls. The Astros encourage their pitchers — especially those with good velocity — to throw more four-seam fastballs up in the zone, the better to generate strikeouts. Ditching his sinker wasn’t the only change Cole made. He also started throwing his slider and curveball more often — which also helped produce more strikeouts. Here’s his pitch selection percentages with the Pirates compared to the Astros:

Pirates, 2016-2017
4-seam fastball: 48.7%
2-seasm fastball: 13.7%
Changeup: 8.6%
Curveball: 11.3%
Slider: 17.6%

Astros, 2018-2019
4-seam fastball: 50.9%
2-seam fastball: 4.2%
Changeup: 6.0%
Curveball: 17.3%
Slider: 21.6%

With the Pirates in 2016-17, Cole’s four-seam fastball generated a strikeout rate of 20.7%. His two-seamer generated a strikeout rate of just 9.4%. With the Astros, Cole’s strikeout rate on the four-seam fastball improved to 39.2%, so it’s not just about simply throwing it more often, but locating it better along with the interplay of throwing more breaking balls.

There aren’t many pitchers who have Cole-like potential, simply because there are few starting pitchers who can match his velocity. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings in 2019, Cole had the second-highest average fastball velocity at 97.4 mph, behind only Noah Syndergaard. Wheeler was fourth on the list, averaging 97.0 mph.

Wheeler is not a perfect match for Cole. Most notably, he missed all of 2015 and 2016 with injuries, including Tommy John surgery. He went 23-15 with a 3.65 ERA over the past two seasons with the Mets with 374 strikeouts in 377 ⅔ innings, numbers that line up with Cole’s final two seasons in Pittsburgh. Wheeler is expected to receive a four- or five-year contract for about $20 million per season. Teams are interested not just because he has been a quality pitcher for the Mets, but because of the expectation that there’s some upside the Mets weren’t able to extract.

Check out Wheeler’s numbers from 2019:

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Buster Olney’s top 10 third basemen — Hot corner is a hot commodity

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A small army of third basemen was on the move last winter. Anthony Rendon got the biggest deal ever doled out by Arte Moreno and signed with the Angels. Josh Donaldson signed with the Twins for $92 million. The Cubs made it known they were open to dealing Kris Bryant for the right return.

In the midst of all that, the name of Nolan Arenado popped into the market, less than a year after he and the Rockies agreed to an eight-year, $260 million contract, with speculation mounting that a team like the Dodgers might explore the idea of dealing for him. But that was before the pandemic, and before the extraordinary shift in the financial landscape that leaves Arenado a distinct choice:

1. He could opt out of his deal after the 2021 season, but probably would have to accept far less in his next contract.

2. Stick with his current deal and make peace with the idea of staying with the Rockies (unless the Rockies are so financially strapped that they are compelled to move him).

The safe bet now is that Arenado will be with the Rockies for the foreseeable future. He’s among the top 10 third basemen, of course.

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White Sox pitching coach concerned about Michael Kopech

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Chicago White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper says he is concerned about right-hander Michael Kopech, who recently opted out of the upcoming 2020 season.

Kopech, 24, missed the entire 2019 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery but was expected to contend for a spot in Chicago’s rotation this year. He has publicly discussed his anxiety and depression, which Cooper cited Saturday in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.

“I don’t know what is going on with Michael, but I know he deals with some anxiety and depression, and my thought is, I sure hope he’s OK,” Cooper told the Sun-Times. “And I hope he gets to where he needs to be, where he’s feeling good and wants to come back, because we will welcome him back with open arms.”

Kopech also missed the start of summer camp earlier this month because of what the White Sox called a personal matter.

“Last time I saw him in spring training, he was in a great place,” Cooper told the Sun-Times. “But let me put it this way: I sure hope the kid is OK. I’m concerned that he’s not OK.”

Kopech, who touched 100 mph during spring training this past March, has not made any public comments about his decision to opt out of the season.

The White Sox did not announce Friday whether Kopech has tested positive for COVID-19 or has been exposed to the virus, with general manager Rick Hahn saying in a statement that “reaching this decision is incredibly difficult for any competitive athlete, and our organization is understanding and supportive.”

“Michael has been pretty open and available to [the media] on a lot of tough topics, but he’s not in the mood to talk right now,” Cooper told the Sun-Times. “When Michael is ready to talk, then you are going to get the real deal.”

White Sox left-hander Carlos Rodon also expressed support for Kopech.

“It’s Michael’s decision, and we have no idea what’s going on in his world, and as a team, we support him 100 percent,” Rodon told the paper. “It’s a tough loss. He’s a guy who can boost our rotation or wherever he would line up in the row of arms. But looking forward to having him back next year.”

Kopech, who made four starts in 2018 before suffering the elbow injury, was a key part of the five-player trade that sent All-Star pitcher Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox after the 2016 season.

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Yoenis Cespedes says he’ll be ready to start season with Mets

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NEW YORK — Yoenis Cespedes is sure he’ll be ready to start the pandemic-delayed season with the New York Mets.

Out of the lineup for almost two years, the 34-year-old slugger said Saturday he finally is close to fully recovered from a string of injuries to his feet and legs.

“I don’t have an exact percentage on how I feel, but I feel way better than I did back in March,” Cespedes said through a translator on a video conference call.

When the coronavirus outbreak halted spring training on March 12 and pushed back Opening Day about four months, that gave Cespedes more time to rehab and heal up.

He said he woke up at 5 a.m. for workouts seven days a week during the hiatus.

“I think possibly in the beginning in March I felt like I probably wouldn’t have been ready for the season, I wouldn’t have been ready in time,” Cespedes said. “But I know for certain now that I will be ready and I’m very excited for the season to start in two weeks.”

The Mets open at home on July 24 against Atlanta. And with the designated hitter available in the National League this year, Cespedes is a prime candidate for that role during a shortened schedule of 60 games.

The two-time All-Star outfielder missed last season and most of 2018. He had surgery on both heels and then broke his right ankle in a nasty fall at his Florida ranch in a reported run-in with a wild boar.

Cespedes said at spring training in February that he expected to return this year, and he’s looked healthy and dangerous in the batter’s box since summer camp opened July 3 at Citi Field.

He cracked a two-run homer off Seth Lugo during an intrasquad game Thursday. But rather than trot around the bases after the ball cleared the fence, Cespedes simply walked back to the dugout.

It seems his only remaining hurdle is showing he can sprint full speed without issue.

“I’ve been able to start running close to as normal as possible, and I think that’s been the biggest stride,” Cespedes said. “Just the way that my body feels now, it’s been great.”

Late last month, general manager Brodie Van Wagenen said the team was optimistic Cespedes would be ready for the season. Van Wagenen also noted Cespedes is a five-tool athlete and won’t necessarily be limited to DH duty if healthy.

The left fielder is entering the final season of a four-year contract.

“The way that my body’s feeling right now and the way that I’ve been able to run, I feel so much better and I feel like I’ll be able to play the outfield if that comes up,” he said.

Cespedes hasn’t played since July 20, 2018 — his only major league game after May 13 that year.

“To be honest, I’m not out here to prove anything to anyone. I’m out here to prove something to myself — that after three surgeries that I can come back and play the way that I know that I can,” he said.

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