Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole sitting on the dugout after...

Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole sitting on the dugout after being taken out in the game in the top of the 1st inning while playing the Toronto Blue Jays at George M. Steinbrenner Field on March 1, 2024. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

CLEARWATER, Fla.

For the record, it was at approximately 11:17 a.m. on Monday, March 11, when the Yankees season officially went sideways.

Inside the visitors' dugout at BayCare Park, spring training home of the Phillies, manager Aaron Boone had just spent roughly seven minutes discussing the suddenly murky physical status of Aaron Judge, who wasn’t in either of the Yankees’ two lineups for Monday’s split-squad games.

Boone made the curious decision to travel to Clearwater rather than stay at Steinbrenner Field, a highly unusual choice for the manager, so he was surrounded by only five reporters, one of whom then asked what seemed like a fairly harmless question after the deepening Judge mystery.

“You have a plan for Cole tomorrow?” the writer asked, simply looking for an update on the ace’s next turn on the mound, either a simulated game in Tampa or on the road against the Blue Jays in Dunedin.

Replied Boone, “Well . . . Cole is not going tomorrow. Cole is getting an MRI today.”

Boom! One minute, we’re trying to process the fragments of info Boone was dropping like bread crumbs regarding Judge’s “core” situation. The next, it’s on to figuring out why Cole’s pitching elbow has a date with an MRI tube, which took place Monday.

This is how quickly a $306 million roster can unravel. o It’s also a reminder about how close the next devastating injury always lurks beneath the surface, and to be suspicious when March routines abruptly don’t look so routine anymore.

We’ll start with Cole, because he presents the most immediate concern. Rarely does an MRI visit result in good news, only varying degrees of bad. Turns out, Cole getting an extra day of rest between mound trips wasn’t just tinkering with the rotation’s schedule, and the Yankees’ ace throwing a live batting practice session last Thursday — rather than facing the Tigers in that night’s Grapefruit League contest — probably had to do with protecting him in a more controlled environment.

Neither Boone nor Cole raised any red flags then, but in the subsequent days, Cole continued to express worry about his recovery process. He told Boone he felt something more akin to midseason fatigue, such as after a 100-pitch outing, than what he should experience after a 47-pitch session facing Ben Rortvedt over and over again.

Boone wasn’t specific about the precise trouble spot, and it was only after I asked him which body part was involved did he offer up the right elbow. From there, we got around to pressing Boone on how much Cole is actually hurting.

“I think there’s a level of discomfort, yeah,” Boone said. “But I wouldn’t describe it as he’s in pain — or it’s a very low-grade number from a pain situation. It’s more like that recovery thing.”

Either way, the bottom line is that Cole isn’t doing so great. And when the $324 million ace isn’t able to stay on his regular spring training regimen, you  probably can scratch him right now for that Opening Day start at Minute Maid Park on March 28.

The Yankees then have to pray it’s not too much longer. Conservatively speaking, even with a relatively clean MRI, Cole probably is headed for some type of a shutdown that will stretch out his build-up for the regular season.

That’s best-case scenario, of course. But it’s worth noting that Cole, 33, has never had Tommy John surgery, which makes him an outlier for someone who throws so hard and piles up that many innings. He’s made no fewer than 30 starts in the last six full seasons (aside from the COVID-shortened 2020 schedule). Over the same period, he pitched more than 200 innings five times, including an American League-best 209 last season.

The Yankees again were counting on Cole to be the rock of an otherwise suspect rotation, enabling them — so far — to pass on Scott Boras’ repeated attempts to push up the price on free agent Blake Snell, the reigning Natonal League Cy Young winner (Cole also is a Boras client, for the record). Now, with that rock showing cracks, Hal Steinbrenner & Co. may have to think hard about their previous strategy.

Any damage to Cole is enough to seriously jeopardize the Yankees’ title hopes. But Boone’s clarification Monday that Judge is dealing with his own issues (after last season was hijacked by his toe disaster) was a double-whammy to the optimism that had been percolating during spring training.

Both Boone and Judge explained away Sunday’s early fourth-inning exit after a pair of strikeouts, saying giving Trent Grisham some reps  was the plan all along. Judge later insisted he is fine. But sitting for both games Monday seemed extreme, followed by Boone now keeping him out until Wednesday  at the earliest.

The first thought was that Judge is having difficulty with his right big toe, considering he’s already said multiple times that it’s an area that will require ongoing maintenance. But Boone assured us the toe isn’t the problem in this instance. So what is bothering him?

“Core,” Boone replied before talking again about general spring training soreness.

That’s a broad diagnosis and could be any number of things — none of them good for someone who swings a bat for a living. Judge has appeared in six games, hitting .143 (2-for-14) with a double and five strikeouts. Hardly worth sweating over. And if the $360 million captain does return Wednesday, you can turn the sirens off.

But here in mid-March, it’s already feeling like a season on the brink for these Yankees.

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