Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, the Yankees’ two best right handed pitching prospects of my lifetime, don’t stand at a crossroads of their careers – they stand at a cloverleaf freeway entrance. Since 2007, Joba has been a starter, a reliever, a starter, a reliever, a starter, a reliever, a competitor for a starting job, and currently, a reliever. Phil has a more reasonable track record. He’s been a starter, a reliever and currently a starter. The buzz is that Joba may never make it as a starter, and if Phil also fails, they Yankees will have to ask if they handled them correctly.
Off the top of my head, I can think of several high profile, pitchers who jumped back and forth between starting and relieving roles and whose destinies were not forever derailed. Adam Wainwright and David Price pop immediately into mind as starters turned relievers turned back to starters with little detriment. And who could think that Mariano Rivera or Jonathan Papelbon were meant to do anything but hasten the extinction of rally caps and monkeys? Did the Yankees do anything that differently with Joba and Phil than has been done in the past?
I think the Yankees have a healthy respect for pitch counts and innings limits and are willing to pre-determine usage quantity for their young guys in the name of injury avoidance. But after that, I think they really don’t see much difference in which roles their pitchers accumulate those innings. What this may mean is that the arms are protected, but the starting pitching skills are severely under-developed.
Joba throws a 96-97 mph fastball out of the pen. He throws a 92-93 mph fastball in the rotation. Hughes throws 95 in the eighth, but only 91 in the first. These guys have to learn how to get out MLB hitters with the lesser stuff if they want to make it as starters. In short relief, they rarely work in a third pitch, and they never have to face any hitter more than once in a game.
Many on the Banter have called for them to be used as long relievers, allowing them the chance to work with diminished stuff, involve third and fourth pitches, and turn the lineup over once. It’s never happened. We can only guess as to why, but my hunch is that the Yankees have made an organizational compromise: we’ll respect the innings, but we won’t respect the role.
You can see why. The Yankees didn’t want to sacrifice a 2009 victory because they used Phil Hughes for three innings on Wednesday and didn’t have him available for a nail-biter on Friday. So they made him a short reliever so he could impact as many close games as possible. That decision solidified the bullpen when it was still a close race and helped them sew up home field advantage for a World Championship run. And though I disagreed at the time and in retrospect, I don’t want them to return the rings and try it again my way.
So Joba Chamberlain is likely done as a starter. There could be shoulder concerns and there could be mental issues contributing to this decision. But if it is based only on performance, then I would argue that the Yankees are much to blame for whatever performance he gave them. Did they learn anything? Will Hughes be given any more leeway to learn on the job? Or are the Yankees well aware of all of this and just don’t care? Maybe they know they screwed these guys up, they know they’ll have a season or two of growing pains, and they refuse to suffer them both simultaneously. Are the Yankees capable of developing a phenom starter that doesn’t produce immediately?