, pub-3283090343984743, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0 The Yankees Are in a Precarious Spot After Losing Gerrit Cole
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The Yankees Are in a Precarious Spot After Losing Gerrit Cole

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

After a pair of runner-up finishes in 2019 and ’21, Gerrit Cole finally won a Cy Young Award last year, but it doesn’t look like he’ll become the first American League pitcher to repeat since Pedro Martinez in 1999–2000. On Wednesday, the New York Post’s Jon Heyman reported that the 33-year-old righty will miss at least one to two months of the regular season due to an elbow issue, and is heading to Los Angeles for an in-person consultation with Dr. Neal ElAttrache, one of the industry’s top orthopedic surgeons — a move that has fueled speculation his injury could be even worse. At the very least, the loss of Cole exposes the Yankees’ lack of rotation depth and jeopardizes their chances of returning to the playoffs after missing out in 2023.

In one of the most nerve-wracking days in recent Yankees history, the team sent both Cole and Aaron Judge — two players making a combined $76 million in 2024 — for an MRI on Monday. The slugger had been experiencing discomfort in his abdominal area, which he believes stems from work he did over the offseason to correct his mechanics in the wake of his right big toe injury. He got a clean bill of health and expects to return to the lineup this weekend. As for the ace, his difficulties in recovering from his starts sent him to the MRI tube. Said manager Aaron Boone, “He described it as his recovery before getting to his next start has been more akin to what he feels during the season when he’s making 100 pitches… When he’s throwing 45 and 55, he usually doesn’t have the recovery issues he’s having.”

The exact nature of Cole’s diagnosis has yet to be reported, only that he’s experienced inflammation and “a twinge in his elbow.” It’s not uncommon for a team to get input from multiple doctors and have a player undergo additional tests, such as a dye contrast MRI to get a better look before determining a course of action; at the very least, Cole reportedly had x-rays and a CT scan on Tuesday. As this has played out, the high stakes and the Yankees’ opacity in handling the extended absences of Judge, Anthony Rizzo, Carlos Rodón, Luis Severino and other players in recent years has fed into a cottage industry that presumes cover-ups and worst-case scenarios. That Boone and general manager Brian Cashman have sometimes downplayed initial concerns ahead of prolonged outages in such cases has further fanned those flames.

Sticking with what’s been reported, according to Heyman, “Several Yankees doctors and ElAttrache have viewed Cole’s preliminary film, and while none has detected a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, there’s enough concern” to merit a visit. Per The Athletic’s Brendan Kuty, “Source says no tear for Gerrit Cole shown on MRI but there was inflammation/soreness and that Cole wanted to get a deeper look at the elbow to figure out what’s going on.”

Cole won the AL Cy Young on the back of what might have been merely the second- or third-best season of his career. His 2.63 ERA and 209 innings both led the league, while his 5.2 WAR and 222 strikeouts both ranked third and his 3.16 FIP fourth. He was one of just two pitchers to reach the 200-inning plateau in both 2022 and ’23, along with the Miles Mikolas, but unlike the Cardinals righty, whose ERA shot up by a run and a half, his performance didn’t degrade.

Indeed, Cole has proven to be exceptionally durable while maintaining his effectiveness. Since finishing the 2016 season on the 60-day IL due to a posterior impingement in his elbow, his only subsequent stint was for a bout of COVID-19 in ’21. He made 30 starts that year, and 12 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but has maxed out at 33 in every other full season since ’17 — even in ’19, when he was scratched from back-to-back starts with right hamstring discomfort. His 1279.2 innings since the start of 2017 are the most in the majors, while his 31.8 WAR is second.

Cole’s durability enabled his record-setting nine-year, $324 million deal, which wasn’t surpassed in total value by any pitcher until Yoshinobu Yamamoto agreed to a 12-year, $325 million deal with the Dodgers in December. He’s lived up to the contract so far, but his comparatively heavy workload and frequent use of a high-90s fastball — both of which have made him so valuable — have increased his risk of an arm injury.

The Yankees can only hope that they’ve caught this one before it becomes more severe, but for however long he’s out, Cole’s absence will be felt acutely given their current construction. Already the team is dependent upon both Rodón and Nestor Cortes returning to form after early-season injuries cascaded, leading to dismal 2023 performances. The 31-year-old Rodón made All-Star teams and finished in the top six in his league’s Cy Young voting in both 2021 with the White Sox and ’22 with the Giants before signing a six-year, $162 million deal with the Yankees. But in his first year in pinstripes, he was limited to 64.1 innings and torched for a 6.85 ERA and 5.79 FIP amid chronic lower back woes and forearm and left hamstring strains. The 29-year-old Cortes seemingly came out of nowhere to become a rotation staple in 2021, then earned All-Star honors in ’22. He strained his right hamstring last spring and was limited to 63.1 innings with a 4.97 ERA and 4.49 FIP while making two additional trips to the IL for a recurrent rotator cuff strain.

The Yankees did augment their rotation this winter by adding 32-year-old Marcus Stroman on a two-year, $37 million deal, but he’s hardly the second coming of Iron Man McGinnity, having made 25 starts in each of the past two seasons. He missed time in 2022 due to shoulder inflammation, and last year, after making his second All-Star team, tailed off drastically in the second half, allowing 27 runs in 24 innings on either side of an absence for right hip inflammation. He finished with a 3.95 ERA and 3.58 FIP in 136.2 innings, his lowest total since 2018 (he did opt out of the 2020 season).

The Yankees’ fifth starter is 28-year-old righty Clarke Schmidt, who made 32 starts and one relief appearance totaling 159 innings last year, posting an unspectacular 4.64 ERA and 4.42 FIP. With the free agency departures of Severino and Domingo Germán, and the trade of righties Michael King, Jhony Brito, and Randy Vásquez in the Juan Soto blockbuster, they’ve shed pitchers who accounted for 64 starts last year. The next man up is probably Luke Weaver, a 30-year-old righty who was knocked around with the Reds and Mariners before making three somewhat encouraging starts with the Yankees, who re-signed him to a one-year, $2 million deal with a club option for 2025 despite his 6.40 ERA and 5.61 FIP in 123.2 innings. He was scratched from a Grapefruit League start on Tuesday due to neck stiffness, but it isn’t believed to be a significant concern.

Beyond that, their internal rotation options are largely untested at the major league level. Luis Gil, a 25-year-old righty who made six starts for the Yankees in 2021 and one in ’22 before undergoing Tommy John surgery, was limited to four minor league innings last year after returning to action. He’s on the 40-man roster, as is 25-year-old lefty Clayton Beeter, a 2020 Dodgers draft pick who split last year between Double-A Somerset and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, struggling a bit at the latter stop but finishing with a 3.62 ERA, 4.62 FIP and 28.8% strikeout rate in 131.2 innings. The pair ranked 19th and 20th on the Yankees’ Top 36 Prospects list in December; both are 40-FV prospects who profile as future relievers. Not on the 40-man roster but with higher upside is 24-year-old righty Will Warren, who placed 99th on our Top 100 Prospects list and who rates as the team’s second-best pitching prospect behind 22-year-old righty Chase Hampton, who’s due for more seasoning after splitting 2023 between High- and Double-A. Warren, a 2021 eighth-round pick, made six starts at Somerset and 19 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, posting a 3.35 ERA, 4.19 FIP, and 27% strikeout rate in 129 innings overall.

Help is available outside the organization, but the Yankees’ attempts to deal for the White Sox’s Dylan Cease — previously thwarted by their refusal to include their top prospect, 6-foot-6 outfielder Spencer Jones — came to an abrupt close with the righty’s trade to San Diego on Wednesday night. While the team reportedly made an offer to free agent Blake Snell in December, that was before they signed Stroman, and so that deal is likely no longer on the table even as Snell remains a free agent. Given that they’re already above the fourth-tier Competitive Balance Tax threshold of $297 million, the additional dollars they spend will be taxed at a 110% rate, so a $30 million contract would generate an another $33 million in taxes. Additionally, the Yankees would lose their second- and fifth-round picks and $1 million in international pool money since Snell declined the Padres’ qualifying offer. Fellow free agent Jordan Montgomery would cost less in salary and picks (he didn’t receive a qualifying offer), but he’s unlikely to return to the fold after Cashman dealt him at the 2022 deadline because he didn’t see the lefty as a likely playoff starter.

Thus, any further foray into the free agent market would likely yield a lower-impact pitcher along the lines of righties Mike Clevinger, Michael Lorenzen, Zack Greinke, or lefty Rich Hill. Even if they sign a starter today, he’s unlikely to be ready by Opening Day given the time it takes to build up a pitch count, by which point Cole wouldn’t be far from returning, at least if he is able to resume throwing in two weeks and takes six (the equivalent of spring training) to fully ramp up — though of course that’s a load-bearing if. I suspect that it would take a full-season loss of Cole to compel the Yankees to bite the bullet with a bigger expenditure rather than squandering their year with Soto. By the way, Cole has an opt-out after this season, though a significant injury may lessen his desire to reenter the market without more leverage.

While they’re no longer equal in scale, the simultaneous concerns about Cole and Judge led me to revisit Ben Clemens’ novel way of looking at our depth charts and projected standings from a couple weeks ago. To refresh your memory: first we calculate each team’s projected winning percentage against neutral opposition (as on our Projected Standings page), then subtract the player with the highest projected WAR, redistribute the missing plate appearances or innings according to our depth charts, and recalculate the projected winning percentage. Then we lather, rinse, and repeat with their top two players out, then their top three… and so on.

The Yankees projected for a .549 winning percentage at full strength at that juncture, the AL’s second-highest and the majors’ fourth-highest, with a big dropoff to the fifth-ranked Rays. While the underlying numbers may have shifted a bit since then in light of injuries and job battles, here’s an excerpt of that 30-by-11 table, first positioning the Yankees among the top five teams and then alongside their AL East competitors:

Projected Winning Percentages, With Top X Players Removed (Abridged)
Team 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Braves .598 .567 .551 .532 .518 .502 .485 .473 .462 .452 .452
Dodgers .573 .556 .538 .525 .506 .500 .494 .484 .480 .462 .455
Astros .560 .537 .517 .495 .481 .469 .463 .455 .449 .443 .435
Yankees .549 .530 .504 .494 .487 .477 .471 .465 .457 .450 .451
Rays .534 .526 .518 .511 .502 .495 .490 .485 .488 .484 .485
Yankees .549 .530 .504 .494 .487 .477 .471 .465 .457 .450 .451
Rays .534 .526 .518 .511 .502 .495 .490 .485 .488 .484 .485
Orioles .525 .513 .503 .491 .484 .474 .469 .466 .460 .458 .453
Blue Jays .522 .515 .503 .487 .476 .472 .466 .463 .462 .450 .452
Red Sox .501 .488 .473 .474 .468 .468 .463 .457 .461 .460 .450

What particularly resonates with this week’s scares is how quickly the Yankees go from being division favorites (with 74.4% Playoff Odds before Cole’s injury) to .500ish with the losses of their top two players — who in this case are actually Judge and Soto (projected for 6.3 WAR to Judge’s 6.7, versus 3.4 for Cole). In other words they’re precariously top-heavy. Their 15-point projected advantage over the Rays turns into a 14-point deficit with just two outages on each team, and their 24- and 27-point advantages over the Orioles and Blue Jays shrink to a single point in the same context.

The impact would be less if we modeled the Yankees losing their first- and third-best players for a full season, or “merely” their third-best, but you get the idea. As it is, with Cole projected for 119 innings (a loss of about one-third of his estimated workload), their odds have only dropped to 71.9%, but that still presumes that he and last year’s disappointments all pitch with reasonable effectiveness. This is a team that’s particularly dependent upon keeping its biggest stars healthy, and doing so may very well be the difference between making and missing the playoffs, particularly in a division whose five teams are now separated by just under eight projected wins top to bottom. Even if the Yankees don’t face a worst-case scenario with Cole, they can’t afford much more to go wrong.