Gerrit Cole’s absence threatens Yankees’ season. What are their options?

The Yankees laugh, they play and they act like there’s not a giant piano hanging by a rope just over the top of their heads every minute of every day.

Such is the nature of their roster. The 2024 Yankees were built around a blockbuster trade for Juan Soto, an extra arm for the rotation in Marcus Stroman and a whole lot of hope against injuries from aging players. The Yankees are also tied to player contracts that are years from expiring, like DJ LeMahieu’s and Giancarlo Stanton’s, compelling them to go with what they have, even if it’s a subpar product. 

That hope against injuries popped like a needle to a water balloon this week, exposing the Yankees to a big dose of reality.

Gerrit Cole experienced difficulty and fatigue bouncing back between his spring-training outings. Then the most nauseating group of words came out of Yankees camp: Cole, elbow, MRI, and possible surgery. 

The reigning American League Cy Young award winner has been dealing with an elbow issue in March. So, with Opening Day in just two weeks, the ace flew from Tampa to Los Angeles for a consultation with Dr. Neal ElAttrache in hopes of ruling out the worst. ElAttrache confirmed what the Yankees medical staff also believed; Cole’s ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow is still intact. At this time, he will not require Tommy John — or any — surgery.

Sheesh. What an enormous sigh of relief for the Yankees, right? Cole being able to avoid Tommy John means the giant piano hasn’t dropped. But there are still major concerns for the club, particularly the strength of its rotation depth. Cole’s ramp-up has been delayed, he still won’t be ready to pitch by Opening Day and he’s expected to return to the rotation — in a best-case scenario — by June. Good for the Yankees, then, that a few top pitchers are still on the market.

Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery and Michael Lorenzen are three top free-agent arms the Yankees could still pursue. Snell is coming off his second-career Cy Young award, Montgomery off his first career championship ring and Lorenzen off his first career All-Star nod. The path the Yankees decide to take, which could very well include standing pat, depends on their desperation.

New York Yankees need Blake Snell after Gerrit Cole set for MRI

As of now, the Yankees have no way of knowing whether Cole will actually hit that June benchmark. The 33-year-old right-hander will proceed with caution when he picks up the ball again, and the Yankees will closely scrutinize his progress. A healthy and effective Cole is essential to the Yankees’ mission of playing well into October. The organization’s priority is to ensure Cole makes a full and successful recovery this season, because the worst-case scenario is he still doesn’t get better while being shut down, or if the elbow issue resurfaces once Cole starts throwing again. 

The prospect of surgery is not one of the options — for now. These next few weeks and months will determine whether that will remain the case.

In the meantime, the Yankees are hopeful Cole can return to his usual effectiveness — a six-time All-Star and perennial Cy Young contender coming off his first such award — once he does get back on the mound. 

The good news of no surgery allows general manager Brian Cashman to take his finger off the panic button. But Cole was always the least risky arm in a Yankees rotation that features Carlos Rodon, Nestor Cortes, Stroman, and Clarke Schmidt. Cole has made four consecutive Opening Day starts for the Yankees since he signed a nine-year, $324 million contract with the club in 2019. There was little reason to believe he wouldn’t stretch that streak to five this year.

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Not since his mid-twenties, when he wore a Pittsburgh Pirates jersey to work, has Cole been forced to miss significant time due to injury. After three trips to the injured list for issues related to his throwing arm, Cole was finally shut down for the 2016 season with right elbow inflammation. Since then, the right-hander was the picture of durability and consistency. Cole managed to stay on the mound and put up Cy Young-caliber seasons for the past seven straight years. The Yankees, in that time, got used to the workhorse mentality that synchronized with the elite aspects of Cole’s game.

No club can truly prepare for its ace to miss months of the season. Just like when Aaron Judge missed time due to injury last season, and the offense deeply suffered from his absence, it’s preposterous to suggest the Yankees can replace Cole.

But… It’s not often the reigning National League Cy Young award winner is still available this close to Opening Day. Despite the pressure to win it all this year, the Yankees are extremely wary of signing Blake Snell largely because of their luxury-tax situation. The Yankees eclipsed the fourth and highest tier of the luxury-tax threshold when they signed Stroman, their payroll soaring past $300 million for a new franchise record. They’ll pay a 110% tax rate on every dollar beyond $297 million moving forward, which means they’d owe more in taxes for Snell — whose 2024 salary will be some tens of millions — than they’d be paying Snell himself.

There is an argument to be made that the Yankees needed more rotation depth even before Cole’s injury. Rodon, Cortes, and Schmidt are huge question marks in terms of durability and effectiveness. Rodon and Cortes are coming off an injury-filled season, Schmidt had a 4.64 ERA in 32 starts last year and Stroman will be adjusting to a new team and Bronx atmosphere. As of now, even, the Yankees could very well look at a bullpen game on Opening Day against their rival Astros in Houston. If that doesn’t make it clear enough that the Yankees need another starting pitcher, what will?

The Bronx Bombers just missed the playoffs for the first time since 2016 and are coming off their worst season in over three decades. They finished eighth in the American League and fourth in their own division. They responded aggressively, by trading for Soto, but throughout this offseason, it seemed like their pitching depth was not fully addressed. Now, with Cole set to miss a chunk of the year at best, Soto only guaranteed to be in pinstripes this year, and even Judge dealing with body fatigue a couple of weeks out from the start of the season, the Yankees must once again respond. How aggressively they choose to attack their lack of pitching depth will determine how desperate they are. 

But this is no doubt a critical juncture for the Yankees front office. The club has to make a move before that giant piano comes crashing down.

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

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