Yankees ace Gerrit Cole just won the first Cy Young award of his career in a unanimous vote last month, adding another significant accomplishment to the right-hander’s incredible resume. The Yankees, meanwhile, are desperate to get back to the playoffs after an 82-80 campaign in 2023. The club dealt away much of its big-league ready pitching depth in order to acquire Juan Soto and Trent Grisham in a seven-player deal last week. While the trade bolstered the club’s lineup considerably, it leaves them more reliant than ever on the 33-year-old than ever as they look ahead to the 2024 season. While bounceback seasons from the likes of Carlos Rodon and Nestor Cortes could certainly take some of the burden off Cole’s shoulders, it’s hard to imagine much success in the Bronx next year if Cole can’t muster a repeat performance.
Betting on Cole is a fairly safe decision for the Yankees. Since being swapped from the Pirates to the Astros prior to the 2018 season, Cole has been at or near the top of virtually all pitching leaderboards. His 28.5 fWAR over the past six seasons leads all MLB pitchers, and no hurler has thrown more innings than Cole’s 1,076 2/3 frames. Cole’s 2.93 ERA is only outclassed by Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Walker Buehler among starting pitchers in that timeframe. His 33.4% strikeout rate is only outclassed by deGrom, Chris Sale, and Tyler Glasnow, while his 2.97 SIERA is bested by only deGrom and Sale. That combination of dominance and durability puts Cole on the shortlist for the best starting pitchers in the game at the moment.
As Cole enters year five of his nine-year, $324MM contract with the Yankees, speculation has begun to arise regarding the opt-out he holds on the final four years of this contract in New York. Even as Cole would be entering the free agent market at the age of 34, it seems all but certain that the righty would be able to top the four years and $144MM remaining on his contract on the open market barring a catastrophic 2024 campaign. With that being said, the contract isn’t as simple as Cole holding the sole decision over his opt-out clause. Should Cole decide to exercise his opt-out, the Yankees can void that decision by tacking an addition year and $36MM onto Cole’s existing contract, effectively offering him a one-year, $36MM extension that would take the sum of his deal in the Bronx to $360MM over ten years.
Agent Scott Boras, who represents Cole, has indicated he believes that’s exactly how the situation will play out next year. As quoted by USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, Boras indicated that he and Cole “would anticipate” that both Cole opting out of his contract and the Yankees voiding that decision “are going to happen” next offseason. It’s a reasonable assumption to make, given the likelihood that Cole will be able to command a guarantee greater than $144MM on the open market next season. For him to actually get the opportunity to test the open market, the Yankees would need to decide they aren’t interested in retaining Cole on what would effectively be a five-year, $180MM contract.
Assuming Cole posts a reasonable facsimile of his recent performance in 2024, such a deal would appear to be roughly fair market value for his services. After all, deGrom received a five-year, $185MM contract from the Rangers last winter entering his own age-35 campaign, despite the fact that he had pitched just 156 1/3 innings over the 2021-22 seasons. Cole, by contrast, has already surpassed that tw0-year innings total before throwing a single pitch in 2024. While the $36MM average annual value of the deal would be among the heftier yearly salaries in the game, it’s no different than what the Yankees are currently paying Cole and clubs around the league haven’t shied away from offering large annual salaries to top starting pitchers, even as they grow older. The deals Scherzer and Verlander signed with the Mets the past two offseasons are perhaps the best examples of this, and each veteran hurler was offered an AAV north of $40MM on pacts that would cover Scherzer’s late thirties and Verlander’s early forties.