Who Will Be the Odd Man Out for the Yankees Once Gerrit Cole Returns?

With ace Gerrit Cole set to return from the injured list, Yankees manager Aaron Boone faces his toughest decision of the season.

Luis Gil of the New York Yankees pitches during the second inning against the Seattle Mariners at Yankee Stadium.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 08: Luis Gil #81 of the New York Yankees pitches during the second inning against the Seattle Mariners at Yankee Stadium on August 08, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

When the news got out that New York Yankees’ ace Gerrit Cole would start the 2024 season on the injured list, many began seriously doubting the team’s World Series chances. Now, nearly two months into the season, the Yankees are rolling with a starting rotation that has been amongst the best in the league.

With Cole nearing his rehab assignment, skipper Aaron Boone is facing one of the tougher decisions of his managerial tenure: Who will he send to the bullpen when the reigning Cy Young Award winner returns?

Although difficult, this is really a good problem to have, especially considering all the questions that surrounded this starting rotation entering the season. The Cole-less staff has been dominant through mid-May, ranking top three in ERA and strikeouts by starters.

The numbers below show just how good this starting rotation has been to start the year and how difficult of a decision Boone will have to make:

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Luis Gil49 IP, 2.39 ERA, 62 K, .188 xBA
Clarke Schmidt50.2 IP, 2.49 ERA, 55 K, 1.13 WHIP
Carlos Rodón55 IP, 3.27 ERA, 55 K, 6 QS
Marcus Stroman56 IP, 3.05 ERA, 48 K, 52.8 GB%
Nestor Cortes60.2 IP, 3.56 ERA, 57 K, 4.9 BB%

The highlight of the staff so far has been one of the better stories of the year; Luis Gil has been absolutely lights out for the Yankees since he was the last pitcher to make the starting rotation following spring training.

In his latest outing on Saturday, Gil had a career performance, striking out 14 White Sox batters and setting the new Yankee rookie record for strikeouts in a game.

Although it won’t be an easy decision, the success of the rotation provides Boone with a couple of routes to go down once Cole returns from injury.

Yankees’ Option A

With a rotation full of players who are either injury-prone or coming off of recent injuries, it might be the best idea to move to a six-man rotation. These guys have been hot to start the year, yet everyone knows baseball has a very long season. Fatigue and injuries are almost inevitable, but with an extra day of rest, this staff can dominate deeper into the year.

Also, as annoying as it may be, the Yankees will have to be careful with Cole when he returns. His injury can be one that lingers throughout 2024, and the last thing anyone wants is to push him too hard out of the gate. A six-man rotation would keep this staff intact while adding one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Additionally, this option gives Boone the flexibility to keep all six of his starters ready to throw deep into games in case one gets hurt and the team needs to move back to a regular five-man rotation.

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Yankees’ Option B

This option is the one that I’m sure nobody wants to see happen, especially Boone. Yet, in order to maintain the routine this staff has kept all year (i.e. a five-man cycle), someone has to go to the bullpen.

The fact that all five starters are having stellar starts to the year makes this decision a toss-up. If someone begins to seriously struggle in the time leading up to Cole’s return, that straggler will likely set himself apart from the rest of the pack as the one to be sent to the ‘pen.

Guys like Carlos Rodón and Marcus Stroman were brought in specifically to be starting pitchers, and they have both done exactly what has been asked of them this season. That’s not to say they can’t be effective in the bullpen, but it just wouldn’t make sense to move them there.

As mentioned before, Gil has excelled far beyond any expectations this season and has put himself into the Rookie of the Year conversation. If he keeps throwing at anywhere near the level he has thus far, he’ll be staying put in the rotation, too.

Nestor Cortes has certainly had a bounce-back season compared to his rough 2023 campaign. With that said, he may never return to his dominant form from 2021 and ‘22.

It’s just an idea, but maybe Cortes can be very effective as a reliever. There’s no doubt he could provide tons of innings in relief and also serve as one of those funky bullpen arms. I’m sure fans don’t want to see Nestor pushed out of the rotation, but it could be a successful move for Boone.

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Finally, this leaves Clarke Schmidt. He has arguably been the second best pitcher on the staff this season. It seems like he is finally coming into his own as a starting pitcher in the major leagues.

But, you have to think that Boone will look into moving Schmidt to the bullpen because he is really the only one of this group who has a successful track record pitching in relief.

Schmidt has a career 3.18 ERA in 51.0 innings out of the ‘pen, most of which came during a strong 2022 season. Moving him back to the bullpen would be a difficult move considering his success as a starter this year, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he was the odd man out – at least for now.

What Will Aaron Boone Decide?

The first option is definitely the easy way out, but at the same time, it makes sense with this group’s injury history and the frequency of pitcher injuries around the league. Moreover, this team’s bullpen is already one of the best in the league and isn’t in need of any immediate help.

Option B is a blessing and a curse for Boone; whoever he might ultimately pick to send to the bullpen already has a good case for why he shouldn’t have been the one.

This will certainly be one of the more difficult decisions of Boone’s career. The right move could continue propelling this team toward the postseason, and the wrong one could prove disastrous for a dominant rotation.

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