Yankees can’t afford to waste Gerrit Cole’s historic season

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DETROIT — Gerrit Cole is exactly who the Yankees thought they were getting when they went all out to woo him nearly three years ago. The righthander is an “ace in his prime,” and even when he doesn’t have his best stuff, like in the Yankees’ 3-2,10-inning loss to the Tigers at Comerica Park Friday night, he’s giving the Yankees more than a fair chance to win.

When he does have it, he is putting up historic numbers and competing at an elite level with just a handful of pitchers in the game right now.

So far, Cole’s been worth the $324 million, nine-year deal they signed him to in December 2019. In fact, he’s been good enough to force the Yankees to invest even more. Cole, along with Aaron Judge and Aroldis Chapman, are showing that they are having the type of elite seasons the Yankees cannot waste.

The Yankees brought Cole in on that historic pitcher’s contract for one reason. They have not been to a World Series in 11 years and they needed an ace to get them there.

At least one former general manager said that Cole’s elite season, along with Judge’s and Chapman’s, are enough — through 50 games heading into Friday night’s series opener against the Tigers at Comerica Park — to put the Yankees front office on the clock heading into the trade deadline.

“It’s not a go for it at all cost scenario,” the ex-GM said. “But it is a ‘don’t waste this season [scenario]. Which begs to ask the question, why let the [luxury tax] get in the way of acquiring talent. It’s the Yankees for Christ sake!”

Cole grinded through six innings allowing one run on six hits, striking out five and walking one against the Tigers, for his fourth game of holding an opponent to less than two runs and still didn’t get a win. It may not be a Jacob deGrom-like streak, but he is in his prime and putting numbers up like the two-time Cy Young winner across town.

And it is starting to also look like Judge, who went 2-for-5 Friday and scored the go-ahead run in the 10th inning on a passed ball, is on the verge of a special season if he can stay healthy. He becomes a free agent after the 2022 season. And before giving up a run in his last outing, Chapman had not been scored on in his first 18 appearances.

With the uncertainty about the collective bargaining agreement and the potential for a labor issue heading into 2022 going forward, this is not a season the Yankees can afford to waste.

That’s the formula for a team that needs to make a run at a World Series now.

After reportedly losing around $200 million last season, they were even more conscious of their finances when they went out to address their needs. They re-signed DJ LeMahieu to a six-year $90 million deal and took a gamble with Corey Kluber, who missed all but one inning of 2020 with a shoulder injury, on a one-year, $11 million deal. They dumped Adam Ottavino’s $9 million on the Red Sox and added Justin Wilson ($5.15 million) and Darren O’Day ($2.45 million) on one-year contracts.

Heading into Friday night’s game, Cole’s 11th start of the year, the Yankees had about $2.3 million in payroll space under the luxury tax threshold and lots of needs. Kluber is going to miss at least two months with a strain in his shoulder and the Yankees do not have a lot of internal starting depth to fill that spot long term.

With an offense that seems to weigh heavily on Judge’s shoulders, they aren’t getting production from other power positions, especially after losing Aaron Hicks for the rest of the season to wrist surgery. They have the lowest OPS (.586) in baseball from center field. They have the third-worst OPS (.547) in the league at first base and are now looking at a few more weeks without Luke Voit, who is on the injured list with a strained oblique.

They have a foundation with Cole to have a special season, but they will need to invest in it. The cost will come in prospects and the luxury tax. It also will not be simple to fill the holes they have.

“They definitely need a center fielder to sustain and the right starter could separate them a little bit,” a rival executive said Friday. “I guess it depends on the center fielder and starter you have in mind. They’re a good team, but I don’t know if there’s enough out there for them to add to make them great yet.”

With what Cole is doing on the mound, it’s worth trying.

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