The Yankees and Pirates have been linked together for weeks now, with Gerrit Cole the subject of trade talks. That the two teams could be trade partners seemed natural; the Yankees were in need of a starter and had prospects to offer, while the Pirates had a talented right-hander that they were incentivized to move as he nears free agency.
Things changed a bit last week when the Yankees announced they were re-signing CC Sabathia on a one-year pact. Where there was once a hole, there was now a 6’6’’, 300-pound, left-handed solution. Sabathia slotted well into a good rotation that already featured four quality arms.
The Yankees no longer truly need a starter. So the question arises; does Cole still fit on this team? Would a move for the right-hander really be the best way for the Yankees to allocate their (ample) resources?
At first glance, Cole looks like a clunky fit. The Yankees have five starting pitchers, all of whom pitched well in 2017 or, in the particular case of Tanaka, struggled but left plenty of reason to believe they would bounce back. With the trades of Chase Headley and Starlin Castro, the Yankees have more pressing holes to deal with on the infield dirt than they do on the mound.
“You can never have enough pitching!”, you might say. It’s a common refrain, and it’s a fair one. There exists no team that will navigate the rigors of a 162-game season with a set of five starters, not with clubs more cognizant than ever of their players’ each and every ailment, and especially not with a 10-day DL at their disposal.
That being said, paying full freight for Cole so they could demote a fully capable starter to a limited role is still inefficient. The most logical candidate to receive a demotion is Montgomery, the pitcher with the shortest track record and longest list of remaining minor league options. The Yankees could stash Montgomery in the minors or in the bullpen until they needed him when a hole inevitably arises in the majors due to injury.
Yet as a command artist that relies on a deep repertoire to turn over lineups, Montgomery does not profile as a pitcher that would play up in the bullpen (such as, say, Chad Green). Plus, letting Montgomery toil in Triple-A would seem like a waste of resources. With every pitcher in the league putting pressure on their bodies with every pitch, if a pitcher has proven capable of getting big league hitters out, as Montgomery has, it makes little sense to let him cycle through minor league lineups and use up valuable bullets when he could be performing in the bigs.
One could also assert that the prospects rumored to be involved (Clint Frazier, Miguel Andujar, any number of power pitching prospects) have limited value to the Yankees as they would mostly be blocked at the major league level. Yet just because the Yankees have less of a need for certain prospects doesn’t mean those prospects are any less valuable. Moving a blue chipper like Frazier solely because the Yankees have a seemingly endless supply of outfielders makes little sense.
We saw this just last summer when Brian Cashman acquired Gray. Because of injury and positional concerns, Jorge Mateo, Dustin Fowler, and James Kaprelian had zero short-term value to the Yankees. Did their non-existent present value to the Yankees mean the Yankees got Gray for free? Of course not! The Athletics still valued those prospects in spite of their lack of value to the Yankees, so it follows the Yankees shouldn’t move Frazier et al just because they have little value to the big league club.
Even so, there’s something about Cole’s ability that could make him a fit on this team. It may not be a simple fit, given the Yankees’ full rotation, but Cole can offer something that few players can, and that is impact upside.
The Yankees already have a strong roster. Their offseason is far from over, but they already project for the second-most WAR in the AL. That makes it difficult to upgrade. It’s much easier to improve from dreadful to competent than it is to improve from good to great, which is what the Yankees are tasked with doing.
That’s where Cole can help. As Matt wrote earlier, he is the kind of premium arm that could elevate the Yankees’ rotation to elite status. He isn’t coming off a great year, but he has ace-level performance in his recent past, is in his prime at age-27, and is projected for about 4 WAR, the 18th-highest projection among pitchers. Also, 98 with movement:
There’s no guarantee that Cole will capture his 2015-form, the year in which he hurled over 200 innings with a 2.60 ERA and garnered Cy Young consideration. However, if the Yankees want that kind of potential, Cole is one of the only available players that can offer it. With a stacked team, the chance that Cole can regain elite status is a chance the Yankees should perhaps be willing to take, since they have limited ways remaining to meaningfully improve.
Moreover, Cole is a short-to-medium term pickup, with two years of team control left. Since he isn’t an incredible long-term asset the way Chris Archer and Michael Fulmer are, Cole won’t cost an arm and a leg. The Yankees would have to surrender value, surely, for Cole, but they wouldn’t have to sacrifice their best prospects or a huge chunk of their system depth the way they would for a Fulmer or Archer.
This is without even exploring the impact Cole could have in creating a terrifying playoff pitching staff, but that’s getting a little far upfield. In the here and now, the Yankees have a tricky calculus to navigate with Cole. He is a pitcher that does not fit a clear need, whose acquisition would necessitate a rejiggering of the rotation (or even a trade of a starter). Yet with the talent of an ace, the Yankees surely must consider if Cole is worth adding as they try to push their roster to the very top of the league.