Yankees’ Gerrit Cole is MLB’s most indispensable player

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Maybe Corey Kluber will come with a healed shoulder and a flux capacitor and go back to the future as a 200-inning ace and Cy-entific marvel.

Maybe Jameson Taillon will be what Nathan Eovaldi and Michael Pineda never were — big arms who maximized talent and health while Yankees.

Maybe Jordan Montgomery will jump on the Andy Pettitte train and maybe Deivi Garcia will be 80 percent of vintage Pedro Martinez. Maybe Domingo German will instantly recall early 2019 form after not pitching for more than a year and maybe Luis Severino will return around July 1 to pitch like it is 2017-18 again after not pitching for more than a year.

If you are doing the math, the equation is maybe plus maybe plus maybe plus maybe plus maybe plus maybe. If you add it up the answer is that Gerrit Cole is the most indispensable player to any contender in the majors.

That is fitting because no player in major league history earns as much per year on average as Cole’s $36 million. In 2021 he is worth every penny to the Yankees. And in 2021, the Yankees need him to earn every penny. Maybe more.

Because behind Cole there is talent. There also is one maybe after another.

That is not stopping every projection system from picking the Yankees to win the AL East. After all, they still have a powerful lineup/bullpen combination. And here is the dirty secret of pretty much the whole sport, but certainly this division — which team has anything close to certainty in its rotation? The defending AL champ Rays lost Charlie Morton to free agency and traded Blake Snell. Tampa Bay tried to sign Kluber and trade for Taillon and enlisted its own maybe chain behind Tyler Glasnow with Chris Archer, Rich HIll, Collin McHugh and Michael Wacha — a quartet that combined for 15 major league starts in 2020.

If you think about who will start the most games in the AL East in 2021, Cole is the favorite — and not by a little. Who do you have second? Toronto’s Hyun-jin Ryu? He has qualified for the ERA title three times in eight seasons. Glasnow? He has 34 starts in the last three seasons combined. I might take John Means. But the relevance could be minimal since the Orioles will struggle to win even 60 games.

Of the 75 pitchers who threw the most innings last year, only five are currently on AL East rosters: Cole, Ryu, Boston’s Martin Perez, Glasnow and his Tampa teammate Ryan Yarbrough.

Gerrit Cole Yankees spring training
Gerrit Cole on Aug. 19, 2020.
Paul J. Bereswill

Cole threw 73 regular-season innings last year — tied for ninth in the majors with Trevor Bauer — and another 18 1/3 in the playoffs. You know what 79 1/3 innings is? That is what was produced during the 2020 regular season by the “maybe” chain of Kluber, Taillon, Montgomery, Garcia, German and Severino. How much can Aaron Boone expect from any of them? How many breaks will each need just to make it to the finish line? And remember, the Yanks are not just trying to win a projection system or the AL East. They are in championship-or-bust mode.

It leaves Boone and pitching coach Matt Blake and the entire franchise in the weird dynamic of having to protect Cole fiercely while pushing him to cover for what others can’t do. The puzzle — if there really are going to be 162 games amid the lingering pandemic — will be to cover more than 1,400 innings. Even with, say, 200 from Cole, the other 1,200 are coming from where with certainty? Now, what if there is less from Cole? What if he gets hurt?

Suddenly, those Yankees projections in the AL East would take a beating in a way that losing even DJ LeMahieu or Gleyber Torres would not deliver. Whose loss in the whole sport would be more devastating to a contender? As great as Jacob deGrom is, the presence of Carlos Carrasco and Marcus Stroman (though he pitched zero innings last year) makes at least a short-term injury to deGrom more survivable for the Mets.

Fernando Tatis Jr.? Juan Soto? Mookie Betts? I think every one of those teams can absorb their absence at least short-term more than the Yankees would if they were without Cole, whose 110 starts the last four years are tied with Zack Greinke and Rick Porcello for the most in the majors and whose 688 2/3 innings are second only to deGrom’s 690 1/3.

Perhaps the “maybes” will surprise. You can paint a scenario in which the Yankees actually have one of the majors’ best rotations. But uncertainty reigns today everywhere in the rotation for a championship aspirant except Cole. So until the maybes prove they are not that, Cole enters pitchers and catchers and the long season as the most indispensable player in the sport.

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