MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees
Gregory Fisher / USA TODAY Sports

24 hours ago, Gerrit Cole was viewed as the safest bet at starting pitcher. He might not be the best pitcher in baseball on a per-inning basis, but no pitcher was more likely to give you an ace-level workload than Cole, who enters 2024 with 200-plus innings in four of his past six seasons (not counting the shortened 2020) and with an MLB-high 1,279.2 innings in that span.

Now? Cole is one of the toughest players in the entire sport to know how to value after the Yankees announced Monday that he will have an MRI taken on his right elbow. Cole was not bouncing back from his throwing sessions this spring the way he expected to, and is set to undergo imaging to determine if there is any kind of structural issue in his elbow, throwing up a red flag on what was once the safest pitching profile in the game. 

It's not great timing for Fantasy, with drafts going on every night between now and Opening Day – I've got one of my most important drafts Monday night, and I genuinely have no idea how to approach Cole. I'm picking 14th out of 14 teams, and before this injury, I would have very strongly considered taking Cole there if he was healthy. Now, there's no way I can do it, not with a top-15 pick.

And the thing is, passing on him could end up being a significant mistake. If Cole's MRI comes back without any structural issues, and he's just given a mandate to rest for a few days and then proceed to prepare for Opening Day, we could look back on this as a complete nothing burger that caused people to panic for no reason. 

But you have to react. Anytime a pitcher is dealing with elbow soreness, you have to move them down in your rankings. The question for Cole is how far. He was the consensus No. 2 SP in pretty much every draft before this, but I have no problem moving Corbin Burnes ahead of him now – I thought Burnes was closer to Cole at No. 2 than he was to the rest of the field after his move to Baltimore. Where it gets trickier is trying to figure out how much further Cole should move beyond that. 

My initial gut reaction was to slide Cole down just ahead of Zack Wheeler, my No. 4 SP in all formats. Wheeler doesn't have either Cole's track record of ace workloads or performance, but he's not far – he's only thrown about 70 fewer innings than Cole since 2018, with an ERA just about one-third of a run higher. Wheeler isn't as good as Cole, but he also notably doesn't have an elbow that requires an MRI right now. 

Alright, I'll move Cole behind Wheeler. Beyond that, you've got Luis Castillo, who has mostly been a model of health with the exception of a shoulder issue in 2022 that cost him about eight starts. Again, he doesn't have Cole's upside in terms of either volume or run prevention, but unlike Wheeler, Castillo isn't exactly a safe bet for 200 strikeouts, either. He's only gotten there twice, in 2023 and 2019, while Wheeler did it in both 2021 and 2023. 

So, that's where I'll stop Cole's slide, at least for now. It's possible I'm not exercising enough caution in light of Cole's injury, but the reality of the situation is, it's impossible to know how much caution we should be exercising right now. Cole could be fine; his season could be over. Anything between those two outcomes is seemingly on the table right now, and if moving him down to 31st in my rankings, as SP4 isn't enough of a discount for you, I get it. But that's about the same discount as the one I'm applying to Blue Jays starter Kevin Gausman, who fell from SP4 for me to SP9 in light of the shoulder fatigue he's been dealing with in camp. 

If you want to take Cole off your draft board entirely until we know his prognosis, I can't blame you. For now, I'll moving Cole down a couple of rounds and a tier and a half or so in the pitching ranks, but I could still see myself taking him in the third round. But, that's theoretical. What will be really interesting to see is if Cole gets back to me at the end of the third round tonight. Will I have the courage to take him 42nd overall? I think so, but if everyone else is passing on him multiple times, I might have to as well. It could backfire, or it could be the best non-pick I make in the draft. 

We'll find out in a couple of days.