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On Gerrit Cole’s looming opt-out clause

The Bombers stand no chance of winning anything without their ace.

Milwaukee Brewers v New York Yankees Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images

Sunday afternoon, Gerrit Cole ticked another box on his AL Cy Young checklist, going toe-to-toe with Brewers ace and 2021 NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes. Burnes may have exited after eight with the no-hitter intact, but Cole was every bit as good as his counterpart, tossing seven scoreless innings yielding three hits and no walks against nine strikeouts to become the first pitcher to record three straight 200-strikeout seasons in franchise history.

It’s the fourth straight start in which Cole has allowed two or fewer runs while going at least six innings, lowering his ERA to an AL-leading 2.79 among qualified starters. Only Kevin Gausman and Sonny Gray stand ahead of him on the AL pitching fWAR leaderboard, and he’s miles ahead of the AL field in terms of rWAR. He is the prototypical workhorse ace, with only one pitcher in the AL within ten innings of his 187, and he finished two-thirds of an inning behind Framber Valdez for the AL lead last season. Since joining the Yankees prior to the 2020 season, only Sandy Alcantara has tossed more innings.

There is no overstating his importance to the Yankees. In a four-season stretch that has seen all the other members of the rotation around him suffer injury or ineffectiveness for prolonged stretches, Cole has taken the ball every fifth day and pitched the way an ace should, barring his hamstring injury in 2021. This became magnified in a 2023 season when big money signing Carlos Rodón never hit his stride, Luis Severino battled injury and ineffectiveness, Nestor Cortes missed most of the season and Frankie Montas never threw a pitch. He leads the team this year with 4.3 fWAR, more than double the next Yankee pitcher (Clarke Schmidt at 2.1).

Suffice to say, the Yankees cannot afford to lose the ace of their staff. If they have any designs on playing postseason baseball over the next five years, that starts with handing Cole the ball on Opening Day and every fifth day until Game 1. That makes his looming opt out following the 2024 season a critical issue that the team must navigate.

Cole can opt out of the final four years and $144 million of his nine-year, $324 million contract following the conclusion of next season. Interestingly, the Yankees can void that opt out by adding a tenth year at $36 million for 2029. Looking ahead to the 2024-25 offseason, the free agent starting pitcher market is devoid of an ace outside of Wheeler.

Should Cole perform at a similar level next year as he has in 2023, triggering the opt out would seem a no-brainer — he would be all but guaranteed to secure a new deal with more years and a greater overall value than the four years, $144 million he would be owed by the Yankees, and at age 34 could conceivably have a good five years of high-level performance ahead of him if Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer are any indication of what a power-pitching ace’s aging curve looks like.

The Yankees have already provided us with a blueprint of how they approach these opt out scenarios. They avoided the opt out clause in CC Sabathia’s first contract with the team by adding an extra year to the deal. He had the option to opt out of the final four years and $92 million by midnight of October 31, 2011, but with hours to go before the deadline, the two sides agreed to an additional guaranteed year valued at $25 million and a vesting option for the following season with a $5 million buy out. They followed an identical route with Aroldis Chapman. He could have opted out of the final two years and $30 million of his contract by midnight of November 2nd, but again the two sides reached an agreement on an extra year (this time valued at $18 million) to avoid the opt out with hours to spare. Given that the framework for such a tactic is already built into Cole’s deal (with the tenth year clause), I expect they will offer him that tenth year within a few hours of his deadline to activate the opt out clause.

However, this sort of eleventh hour negotiating tactic sets up an unnecessarily adversarial relationship between team and player. Why risk estranging one of the most important members of the organization by playing chicken? Instead, I would urge the Yankees to convince Cole through their actions that they are committed to building a winner around him and Aaron Judge, and that starts with their approach to free agency this winter.

Everyone and their mother knew the Yankees had gaping holes on offense entering this season, and those deficiencies have been laid bare over the last handful of months. Things look even bleaker for 2024. Sure, Judge has proven that he is still the best hitter in baseball when healthy, but the likes of Giancarlo Stanton, DJ LeMahieu, and Anthony Rizzo will all be a year older — we all saw what happened when the team relied on that corps of veterans to be cornerstones of the offense.

Though this free agency period is devoid of the type of star-caliber talent (outside of Shohei Ohtani) that the Yankees have passed on over the last two winters, there are still impact players who would immediately raise the team’s offensive floor. Cody Bellinger has positioned himself as the gem of the position player pool while guys like Matt Chapman and Jeimer Candelario offer upgrades over the production the Yankees received at third.

It could be argued that the one thing standing between the Yankees and postseason success in the latter half of the previous decade was the lack of a true ace. In Gerrit Cole, they’ve finally had that elusive piece for the last four seasons. Unfortunately, they’ve stopped short of a full commitment to winning since they signed him. If winning is their true goal (as they are wont to declare), there are few things they can do to help that cause more than ensuring their ace sees out his contract in pinstripes.