Welcome, Yankees, to the type of conundrums that face losing teams.
Gone are the annual luxurious problems of manipulating the final weeks of the regular season to align the starting rotation properly for Game 1 of a playoff series and evaluating whether carrying an extra relief pitcher, a third catcher or a utility infielder provides the most roster flexibility in the postseason.
In their place, consider this depressing debate: Should the Yankees soon shut down Gerrit Cole?
Though there has been no public discussion of the possibility to date, if there is a finite number of throws in every pitcher’s arm before it blows out — isn’t that the real reason for soft-capped pitch counts and innings limits? — then why should Cole throw a single pitch in September?
Why should he tap into his reserve and add to his total of 25,113 MLB pitches in games that are as meaningless as any the Yankees have played since 1992?
Here’s Part 1 of the answer: Because he is chasing his first Cy Young Award and bolstered Hall of Fame credentials.
Despite his four-inning stinker Saturday in a loss to the Red Sox that felt like the latest proof that the Yankees’ playoffs hopes are dead — a 0.9 percent probability following the loss, according to FanGraphs — Cole (10-4) remains the favorite to be named the top pitcher in the American League. He leads the way in ERA (3.03), quality starts (18) and innings pitched (160 ⅓).
Cole, who turns 33 on Sept. 8, is a six-time top-10 vote-getter for the Cy Young, including runner-up finishes in 2019 (Justin Verlander) and 2021 (Robbie Ray). It is far from a certainty that he will have another opportunity as promising as this one to win the award.
The list of Hall of Fame starting pitchers who played the majority of their careers after the Cy Young was formed (1956) and never won the award is small: Bert Blyleven, Jim Bunning, Juan Marichal, Jack Morris, Mike Mussina, Phil Niekro, Robin Roberts, Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton.
When Cole’s career eventually is measured against contemporaries Verlander, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom and Zack Greinke, a zero in that category could be killer.
But Yankees fans — starved for a first World Series appearance since 2009 — don’t want to hear about individual award chases after watching Alex Rodriguez collect two MVPs in pinstripes while Derek Jeter never finished higher than second in 2006 (Justin Morneau), which brings us to Part 2 of the answer:
The Yankees owe it to Cole.
They owe him? More than the $324 million he is being paid over nine seasons?
Simply put, yes.
For being the MVP on this most-forgettable team.
For, in an era of populous arm injuries, being Mr. Durability and surviving four heavy-workload seasons in the Bronx without more than a tight hamstring and a bout with Covid-19 in 2021 to show for the stress of firing 97-mile-per-hour fastballs.
For taking younger pitchers under his wing as three-fifths of the Yankees’ projected veteran rotation crumbled around him this season.
For the listless bats failing to get him the win in 11 starts this season when he allowed two runs or fewer.
With the Mets already hinting at plans to ease off ace Kodai Senga in September, temptation will exist to draw an apples-to-oranges cross-town comparison.
But where Senga’s arm still is adjusting to MLB demands after pitching once-per-week as a professional in Japan, Cole has exceeded 200 regular-season innings five times in his first 10 MLB seasons. Even if Cole pitched every fifth game for the rest of the homestretch slog and continued his average start length, he would add about another 43 innings and finish with fewer than he tossed last season (postseason included).
The Yankees already seem to be toeing middle ground here.
Cole’s last two starts both came on five days’ rest instead of the traditional four because the Yankees bypassed opportunities provided by scheduled days off to skip a weak spot in their rotation and squeeze more out of their ace.
Shutting down Cole completely is another matter, however, especially with ownership surely aware by now that there is little other reason to watch the rest of this season than the chance of witnessing brilliance.
If those 43ish innings that Cole might pitch the rest of the way could be bottled and magically preserved at the same effectiveness, the championship-minded right-hander might even agree to storing them for a future pennant race or playoff series.
But there is no scientific data to support that Cole pitching next month means he is losing 43 top-form innings off the end of his career, nor to support that sitting through September means that he will be great the next time that the Yankees play meaningful games.
So, the Yankees should continue to let Cole pitch.
And, who knows? Maybe, if the Yankees get hot here, they will carry an 80-81 record into an Oct. 1 showdown with the hapless Royals and Cole can start the season finale with a chance to clinch the Cy Young and stretch the franchise’s streak of non-losing seasons to 31.
That’s what qualifies as big October baseball these days.
Today’s back page
The NFL’s strict sports-wagering rules don’t apply to the kind of proverbial gamble that Jets head coach Robert Saleh is about to take.
Aaron Rodgers is expected to make his Jets’ debut Saturday in a preseason game against the Giants, as first reported by The Post’s Brian Costello.
Because Saleh isn’t going to risk Rodgers’ health behind a backup offensive line or waste Rodgers’ time throwing to backup receivers, you can assume most Jets’ offensive starters will also get their first taste of the preseason.
So, the unofficial goodbye to MLB season and hello to NFL season in New York could feature Alijah Vera-Tucker blocking … *checks roster* … D.J. Davidson so that Rodgers can complete a pass to Garrett Wilson against coverage from … *checks roster* … Gemon Green.
The Giants played their offensive and defensive starters for a quarter or less — with an exception for those locked in position battles — this past weekend against the Panthers.
If head coach Brian Daboll’s history is any indication of how he plans to operate this season, expect most starters to sit against the Jets as Daboll gives Davidson, Green and others on the border ample opportunity to stake claims to the final spots on the 53-man roster and practice squad.
As NFL coaches struggle to find the same uniformity in how to handle the shortened preseason schedule that once existed when teams played their starters into the second half of the third preseason game, Daboll seems to subscribe to getting the starters a taste of the preseason but not risking injury too close to the regular season.
By starting Rodgers in the Jets’ fourth preseason game — most teams play three nowadays — Saleh is indicating that he believes in a tune-up close to the regular season so that rust does not set in during a long layoff before Week 1.
But Saleh no doubt is taking the bigger risk by having Rodgers play in the preseason for the first time since 2018.
Any small positives that can be gained — allowing Rodgers to get acclimated to new home-stadium surroundings (even though, technically, the Giants are the home team), familiar with new teammates and rid of any new-team jitters — pale in comparison to the negatives should something go wrong.
You would think that Saleh — after losing then-starting quarterback Zach Wilson to a six-week knee injury in the 2022 preseason and with his own job security tied to Rodgers’ health — would err on the side of caution.
Instead, the Jets will put Rodgers on the field against defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, who was criticized last preseason by Patriots coach Bill Belichick for breaking an unwritten rule by blitzing too frequently in the preseason.
Martindale spoke with great respect about Rodgers before a Giants-Packers game last season — drawing comparisons between Rodgers, a python and Michael Jordan, and calling the quarterback a “pain in the butt” to scheme against — but that doesn’t mean he won’t blitz Rodgers’ first dropback.
Heck, the blitzing linebacker might be Oshane Ximines, whose hit on Rodgers at the end of last season’s game broke the quarterback’s thumb and contributed mightily to his decline in play during a disappointing final season with the Packers.
For some Giants in uniform Saturday, it will be a career highlight to face Rodgers juxtaposed against the ensuing disappointment of cut day. For all those invested in the Jets, just hold your breath.
At least it took 20 seasons for a team to be forced into participating in “Hard Knocks.”
The Peyton Manning-produced Netflix docuseries “Quarterback” — an eight-episode must-watch if you haven’t yet tuned in — seems to be having a hard time recruiting subjects for Season 2, presumably for all the same primary reasons: It’s invasive, an extra time commitment and could be used as fuel by critics against any quarterback who is featured and then fails to meet on-field expectations.
The list of quarterbacks who reportedly claim to have passed on Season 2 invites include Daniel Jones (Giants), Joe Burrow (Bengals), Justin Fields (Bears), Jimmy Garoppolo (Raiders), Sam Howell (Commanders), Jalen Hurts (Eagles), Lamar Jackson (Ravens), Trevor Lawrence (Jaguars), Dak Prescott (Cowboys), Geno Smith (Seahawks), Matthew Stafford (Rams) and Tua Tagovailoa (Dolphins).
Whether or not we should believe their denials — surely, “Quarterback” wants to announce its cast on its own schedule — is another thing.
Jones, for one, seemed to squirm through his denial, and it’s hard to imagine Jones saying no to mentor Eli Manning if he called on brother Peyton’s behalf.
Among the many reasons that Season 1 was a hit, the right three quarterbacks were picked: Super Bowl winner Patrick Mahomes, oft-criticized veteran Kirk Cousins and fighting-for-his-job Marcus Mariota. That all three had interesting off-field stories — Mahomes’ and Mariota’s wives were pregnant — added to it.
So, here’s our ideal cast for Season 2, putting aside Rodgers, who the New York audience should get its full of right here (and other places):
Jared Goff, Lions: Yes, we’ve already seen Goff on multiple seasons of “Hard Knocks,” but the Lions are the “it” team right now. He is expected to lead Detroit to its first division title since 1993 while holding off veteran backup Teddy Bridgewater and still-injured rookie Hendon Hooker. He is engaged to model Christen Harper, who recently went wedding dress shopping, suggesting the big day is around the corner and his planning input is needed.
Joe Burrow, Bengals: Burrow often says what’s on his mind, which is a nice contrast to so many robo-programmed quarterbacks. He faces Super Bowl-or-bust pressure as Mahomes’ biggest threat. And he is involved in negotiating what should be the largest contract in NFL history — from an owner who historically doesn’t wade in the deep financial waters — after watching Hurts, Jackson and Justin Herbert (Chargers) all top $50 million per year on extensions this offseason.
Russell Wilson, Broncos: What an unlikely NFL villain Wilson has become. Former teammates came out of the woodwork when Wilson struggled last season — maybe the most precipitous decline ever by any Pro Bowl quarterback still in his prime — to hammer him for certain inauthenticities. It would be hard to fake a persona when covered so thoroughly. Let’s get villainous head coach Sean Payton some airtime, too.
• Jordan Love (Packers): Inside look at the pressure of succeeding Rodgers’ legendary career.
• Anthony Richardson (Colts): The rookie whose week-to-week development could be off the charts.
• Baker Mayfield (Buccaneers) and Ryan Tannehill (Titans): The veterans fighting to salvage their careers, a la Mariota.
• Tagovailoa (Dolphins): He considered retirement in the offseason because of repeated concussions, so how is his health handled privately?
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