The tricky task of replacing Gerrit Cole

How will the Yankees manage without their ace for 10-12 weeks?

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees
Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees / Dustin Satloff/GettyImages

When it was announced last week that Gerrit Cole would undergo an MRI on his elbow, Yankee fans everywhere held their breath, with many expecting the worst. Pitchers experiencing elbow discomfort severe enough to go in for imaging often end up getting Tommy John surgery, or a comparable procedure that could leave them out of commission for upwards of a whole season. Even those who don't need surgery tend to be shut down for a considerable amount of time to let their elbow heal, then exercise extreme caution when returning to the mound.

Luckily for Yankee Universe, the initial MRI performed by Yankee doctors revealed no tear of Cole's ulnar collateral ligament, meaning no surgery, and a visit with renowned elbow specialist Dr. Neal ElAttrache confirmed that the discomfort was caused by inflammation, allowing Cole to rest and rehab and set a timetable to return in about 10 to 12 weeks.

Even though Gerrit Cole has seemingly avoided the worst possible elbow diagnosis, his being sidelined for at least the first two and a half months of the seasons brings a difficult puzzle for Brian Cashman and the Yankees front office to solve. How will the Yankees replace half a season of production from their ace?

Of course, finding a pitcher who can replace the production of someone who won the AL Cy Young award last year is an impossible task. It would be akin to the grumpy old scouts in the beginning of Moneyball trying to replace Jason Giambi; there's simply no one around like him. But the Yankees can take a page out of Billy Beane's book, and try to recreate Gerrit Cole in the aggregate.

Cole is not just a valuable asset because he dominates opposing hitters nearly every time he takes the mound. He's also valuable because he soaks up innings more than just about any pitcher in the league. He was one of just five pitchers in baseball to throw at least 200 innings in 2023, and the next highest Yankee was Clarke Schmidt with 159. Without their workhorse, the Yankees will need to find other sources of quality innings. Here's where they could turn:

Yankees replacements for Gerrit Cole in first half of 2024 MLB season

Name-brand external options

Starting off with the road that the Yankees' front office is least likely to take, the Yankees could of course look at some of the bigger name free agents still left on the board, who have handled a big workload multiple times in their careers.

Since Cole is not expected to miss the whole season, it seems unlikely that the Yankees would suddenly spring for Blake Snell or Jordan Montgomery after passing on them and their high price tags all offseason (yes, even as the Astros court Snell). If Cole was set to be on the 60-day IL all year, thus removing him from the 40-man roster and not counting his salary towards the luxury tax, perhaps Hal Steinbrenner could be tempted into opening his wallet for an innings-eater like Montgomery on a short-term deal.

Although he's multiple tiers below the arms mentioned above, the Yankees have recently been linked to the next guy on the free agent depth chart, Michael Lorenzen. But not only is it tough to see the Yankees relying on a pitcher with a high walk rate and a propensity for giving up hard line drives and fly balls to replace their ace, it's also unlikely that they pony up even for him. The White Sox have reportedly also checked in on Lorenzen following trading Dylan Cease, and considering the turbid state of their rotation, Chicago will likely make the better offer to land him.

Other external options

The Yankees' reported interest in Lorenzen does point to the front office looking to add more pitching to address their deficit, but at this point it looks like if an addition does happen, it'll be one with a low price tag.

The major league free agent market does not look very promising. After the three pitchers already mentioned, the names left include the likes of Mike Clevinger, Johnny Cueto, Noah Syndergaard, Rich Hill, and Zack Greinke. Hill, fresh off his 44th birthday, might be the most intriguing option just because he threw around 150 innings in 2023, but very few of them were quality, as he posted a 5.41 ERA and his worst walk rate in years.

Cashman could also be working on a trade, perhaps for a pitcher with options, but there are few obvious names that teams are looking to move at this point. The answer could come as late as Opening Day, as teams look to shed 40-man space in under-the-radar deals before the season starts.

Internal options

At this point, the most likely options for replacing around 120 innings of Gerrit Cole are already in the organization. This offseason's trades for Juan Soto and Alex Verdugo forced the Yankees to part with valuable upper minors depth options in Drew Thorpe, Randy Vásquez, Jhony Brito, and Richard Fitts, but there's still plenty of depth available should the Yankees need it.

Luke Weaver and Cody Poteet, both of whom have experience starting games, were picked up on low-cost free agent deals this offseason, and it looks like Weaver, who is out of options, could be slated to open the season as the fifth starter. He was able to eat some innings for the Yankees at the end of last season, and with the introduction of a new pitch, he could provide even more quality innings for the Yankees in 2024.

The Yankees will also probably lean harder on some of their prospects who are close to MLB ready, like Will Warren, Clayton Beeter, and Chase Hampton. Warren, 24, threw 129 innings to the tune of a 3.35 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A in 2023, and has been getting an extended look in spring training this season. Beeter, 25, had a very similar season to Warren last year, and has turned heads with his great Grapefruit League performance this spring.

Hampton, 22, is a little further away from the majors, but has actually drawn comparisons to Gerrit Cole himself. A 6' 2'' right-hander with blazing stuff and solid command, Hampton peaked at Double-A in 2023, but could be rushed to the majors if the Yankees wear out these first few options early in 2024.

Ultimately, even though the Yankees will likely see their ace return sometime in 2024, replacing even half a season of Gerrit Cole is no easy task. But between their plethora of internal options and the nonzero chance of a pitching move on the horizon, the organization is in a much better spot than most to weather this storm.