Monday, April 7, 2008

Joba in the 'pen

For most of last year, all the buzz in the Yankee empire was about Phil Hughes, a minor league pitcher with amazing talent who was going to be the future of the team. The Yanks quickly fizzled in the postseason, but not before calling up their minor league pitcher and introducing the baseball world to the amazing arm on one young Yankee phenom named...Joba Chamberlain.

He's not perfect, but with the precision and movement of his throws and a fastball that has been clocked at 100 mph, Chamberlain is, for all intents and purposes, unhittable.

Chamberlain and Hughes are both currently pitching for the Yanks, Hughes in the starting rotation, and Chamberlain in the bullpen. Chamberlain pitched out of the bullpen last year as set up man for closer Mariano Rivera, and his arm was considered so valuable that manager Joe Torre instated the Joba Rules, that he could only pitch one inning, that he couldn't pitch two games in a row etc. etc. This year, Chamberlain is still unhittable and Hughes is having a rough start to the season, still winless in all his starts. And now King Steinbrenner is calling for Chamberlain to be moved to the starting rotation.

I have mixed feelings about this. Hughes hurt his arm after his first major league outing last season, putting him out of commission for quite some time, and from the way he's been pitching this year, quite possibly injuring him enough to have altered the promising future of his career. Most starting pitchers don't last longer than six or seven innings. Most closers don't last more than one or two innings, which means there could be as many as two innings between starter and closer, and many teams lose games due to weak outings by poor pitching out of the 'pen. So far, Chamberlain has proven to be a pretty much guaranteed, seamless bridge from starter to Mo.

So, first off, is it smart to risk his arm by asking him to pitch six innings every five games? Second, can he pitch six innings every five games? Sprinters can't run marathons. Marathoners can sprint. He's phenomenal for 30 pitches, but would his arm hold up for 100 or more? Third, if Chamberlain moves to the starting rotation, who becomes that bridge to Mariano? Fourth, who are we grooming to take over as closer when Mariano inevitably retires soon?

I think maybe some people see being a bullpen pitcher as a being a less talented pitcher - someone who wasn't good enough to make the starting rotation. Maybe that's how Chamberlain feels. But I think that in this era where pitchers aren't pitching complete games anymore, there's more than a bit of prestige attached to being a great closer, and that teams will pay big bucks for a guy they know can seal their win for them. Mariano Rivera for the Yanks, of course, but Jonathan Papelbon of the Red Sox also immediately comes to mind. Have you ever been to a Yankee or Red Sox game when one of these guys comes out? It's deafening. These guys are like rock stars.

Anyway, I think Steinbrenner is looking at the Yanks' .500 start and immediately gunning as he is wont to do for the quick fix to the situation instead of giving these players the time they need to adjust to a new manager, a new team, etc. etc. Who knows? Maybe Joba would be a brilliant starting pitcher and Yankee management needs to stop treating him with kid gloves. But we already know for certain that he's brilliant in the bullpen.

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