There’s not a lot of intrigue in Yankee camp this year. The team arrives as defending champions and, as I wrote in my campers post, the 25-man roster is fairly predictable given the players in camp. Joe Girardi does have to work out how he’s going to distribute playing time in left and center field and decide on a basic batting order, but the roles of the players involved aren’t likely to change much no matter what he decides. The only significant suspense March holds for Yankee fans, save wondering if Nick Johnson can survive the month with all of his bones and ligaments intact, is in the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation. Fifth-starter battles are typically slap fights among assorted marginal minor leaguers and veteran retreads, but the battle in Yankee camp this spring pits the organization’s top two young arms against one another in a four-week competition that could have significant repercussions for the futures of both pitchers.
That would be a lot more exciting if there wasn’t as much fan fatigue over Joba Chamberlain’s pitching role as there is over Brett Farve’s flirtations with retirement, but it’s important to note that, for all of the debates, role changes, rule changes, and innings limits, the Yankees have Chamberlain exactly where they want him this spring, coming off a season of 160 innings pitched and ready to spend a full season in the rotation without having a cap placed on his innings pitched. For that reason, I believe that the Yankees are looking at the fifth starter’s job as Chamberlain’s to lose, though they’d ever admit it. Chamberlain is nine months older that Hughes and a season ahead of Hughes in terms of his innings progress (Hughes threw 111 2/3 innings between the minors, majors, and postseason last year; Chamberlain threw 100 1/3 in 2008). If Chamberlain claims the fifth-starter job this year, and the Yankees can find Hughes 150-odd innings, Hughes can follow Chamberlain into the rotation as a full-fledged starter in 2010 on the heals of the free agency of both Andy Pettitte and Javier Vazquez. If that happens, the Yankees will have established both young studs in the rotation before their 25th birthdays. They’re thisclose.
There are just two problems. First, Chamberlain got his innings to the right place last year, but his head and stuff seemed to go in the opposite direction. Second, getting Hughes 150 innings this year with Chamberlain eating up close to 200 in the rotation could prove to be as challenging as limiting Chamberlain to 160 last year.
Taking the latter first, the flip-side of the fifth-starter battle is the assumption that the loser will move back in to the eighth-inning role that both young pitchers have excelled at in recent seasons. In his 50 career major league relief appearances during the regular season, Chamberlain has posted a 1.50 ERA and struck out 11.9 men per nine innings while holding opposing hitters to a .182/.255/.257 line. Hughes, in 44 regular season relief appearances, all from last year, posted a 1.40 ERA and 11.4 K/9 while opposing batters hit .172/.228/.228. That sort of late-game dominance is hard to resist (thus the endless Joba debates), but both pitchers would be more valuable throwing 200 innings a year than 60, and given the impending free agency of Pettitte and Vazquez not to mention A.J. Burnett’s injury history, the Yankees have to resist slotting the loser of this spring’s competition into that role to such a degree that they’re unwilling to stretch him back out during the season, as they were with Hughes last year. Doing so would reset the clock on that pitcher’s journey toward the rotation and thus could severely damage his career path.
Perhaps that is where last-minute signee Chan Ho Park comes in, or sophomore David Robertson, or rookie Mark Melancon. That could add an extra wrinkle to this spring’s camp as those three–as well as Alfredo Aceves and Chad Gaudin, who have some eight-inning potential of their own–fight to prove that they can handle set-up duty for the Great Rivera. Or maybe Hughes can be used as a two-inning set-up man with the odd three-inning outing and thus potential to spot-start or even fill an injury hole in the rotation in order to keep his innings up. I can only imagine the uproar that would occur on sports talk radio should neither Joba nor Hughes wind up pitching the eighth-inning, but the Yankees have impressed me with their commitment to keeping Chamberlain on track as a starter despite loud objections from the peanut gallery and the obvious growing pains Chamberlain has experienced in the role.
Speaking of which, those growing pains have been overstated. It’s certainly true that Chamberlain looked diminished as a starter last year. He nibbled, was inefficient, his stuff wasn’t as sharp, his velocity was down. Put simply, he didn’t look like the ace-in-the-making those of us who have argued for his future as a starter have suggested he could be. That’s why it’s important to remember that he was only 23 last year and was battling huge expectations, some unintentional head games from his team, personal problems (his DUI, his mother’s arrest), and those pesky limitations which he perhaps unwisely asked to be kept in the dark about. In their age-23 seasons, Tim Lincecum was a rookie with a 4.00 ERA, CC Sabathia posted a 4.12 ERA, Zack Greinke and Johan Santana were doing most of their pitching out of the bullpen, and Jon Lester spent more than half of the season in the minors and had a 4.57 ERA in the majors. I could go on. I could also point out that just about every pitcher in baseball is going to throw harder out of the pen when they’re going max effort for 10 to 30 pitches than when starting and hoping to throw upwards of 100, and that part of Chamberlain’s readjustment was learning exactly how far to dial it back and how and when to dial it back up for an important out.
Then there were Chamberlain’s actual results. In 15 starts prior to the All-Star break he posted a 3.89 ERA and a 8.1 K/9 while the Yankees went 10-5 in his starts. Yes, he only averaged 5 1/3 innings per start, but again, this is all pretty solid work for a 23 year old spending his first full season in a major league rotation. Chamberlain said he said he went home to Nebraska during the break and got his head on straight. It showed. His first three starts out of the break were outstanding as he allowed just two runs, on eight hits, one a solo homer, while striking out 19 in 21 2/3 innings. In total, Chamberlain’s first 32 major league starts from his rotation debut in 2008 through that third post-break game in 2009 produced a 10-3 record, a 3.27 ERA, and an 8.7 K/9. Double those decisions and any Yankee fan would sign up for that from Chamberlain every year.
Unfortunately, those three post-break outings pushed Joba’s season innings total past 110. The Yankees skipped his next start in an effort to suppress his innings, and Joba lost his new-found groove. After a seven-day lay-off, Chamberlain walked seven men and gave up four runs in five innings. Two more starts on regular rest were similarly sub-par, then he had eight more days off and gave up seven runs in four innings when he returned to the mound. At that point, the Yankees made a sudden change of plans, deciding that the long rest wasn’t working and opting to start Chamberlain on regular rest but to limit his innings. That was no better. All totaled, Chamberlain made seven starts after the Yankees started pulling on the reins and posted a 7.01 ERA, 1.79 WHIP, allowed 1.75 homers per nine innings, and struck out just 6.3 men per nine in those starts. Can he really be blamed for that performance? Or should the previous 32 starts count for more? Or maybe just the previous 20 from last year when he went 7-2 with a 3.58 ERA.
So, yes, the Yankees need to see a few more ticks on Joba’s fastball, some better control, more tilt on his slider (that he nearly hit Jorge Posada in the foot with one during batting practice last week seems like a good sign given the nasty break diving down and in on lefties that the pitch had in 2007 and 2008). They need him to go after hitters rather than nibble. They need to see that he’s clear-headed and focused and be convinced that he’ll be able to hold that focus through the April 12 sentencing of his mother who pleaded no contest to a drug delivery charge that could result in up to 20 years in jail. That last might be a tall order, but if the Yankees see what they need to see from Chamberlain on the mound, it shouldn’t matter how Phil Hughes pitches this March, never mind Gaudin, Aceves, and Sergio Mitre, who are fleshing out the field more than actively challenging the two youngsters.
Hopefully we’ll get our first look at both Chamberlain and Hughes on Friday in the 1:05 game against the Rays on YES, which I’ll be liveblogging here. However, Chamberlain was a bit under the weather on Tuesday, and if he doesn’t get a bullpen in on Wednesday he could be bumped. I’m sure both he and the Yankees want to avoid that, just as they both want to avoid having any one else be the fifth starter this year.