Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes were both in action today. Joba was strong in his intrasquad game. In five innings he gave up only 2 runs, and threw 48 of his 78 pitches for strikes. Phil wasn’t as good. He gave up 3 homers and 4 runs in just a bit over 4 innings of work.
Spring training stats are meaningless. They’re not predictive. It was widely reported that Robinson Cano hit over .400 in spring in 2008 and that Brett Gardner did the same last spring. That performance translated for neither player to the regular season. Furthermore, spring training stats don’t mention that Hughes is trying to introduce a changeup to his repertoire. All of this means that while it may be fun for baseball fanatics, such as myself, to dissect spring training performances to better predict the season, there’s really no point.
But anyone watching YES’ broadcast would have noticed that the entire crew was convinced that Phil Hughes was probably winning the 5th starter spot from Joba Chamberlain. The broadcast team went so far as to report that Joe Girardi implied Hughes may have been winning the job, in an interview during today’s practice game.
Setting aside the obvious reasons why Joba should start, such as the outsized value of a starter compared to a reliever, there are two reasons Joba Chamberlain should be this year’s fifth starter, neither of which has received much attention.
The first is peculiar to the Yankees. The team doesn’t have a lot of starters. Sure, the bombers have many starters available in 2010, but looking beyond this upcoming season the picture gradually worsens. Javier Vazquez and Andy Pettitte are free agents. Pettitte will retire, soon. CC Sabathia has an option year after 2011.
The only pitchers the team has locked up for a few more years are A.J. Burnett and Joba Hughes. I expect the Yankees won’t ever let Sabathia go, now that the team has its hooks in him, but even with him on board the team only has 2 sure thing starters for the next few seasons.
If both Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain develop as starters the team’s rotation looks dramatically different. Instead of 1 starter the team definitely has and one it will keep at all costs, the Yankees have 4 starters – 2 veterans and 2 heirs apparent. Even if Joba can develop into the next Mariano in the bullpen (and, for the record, that’s not gonna happen) the Yankees need him more as a starter. The team has too many position players on expensive long term deals, and needs to try to pare back costs in the later ranks of the rotation.
That brings us to the second reason Joba should start, this season, that doesn’t get as much attention as it should. Phil Hughes is on an innings limit. Joba is not.
Last season Joba posted an ERA of 4.75 over 157.1 innings. That’s not great (90 ERA+), but for a fifth starter, one that the team wouldn’t need to use in the post season, that’s not so bad either. Joba will probably pitch at least 20 more innings as a starter in 2010. If his 4.75 ERA is taken as a worst case scenario (his ERA was well under 4 until the team began jerking around his innings) then Joba will have proven himself as a 5th starter, albeit a mediocre one.
Phil Hughes has yet to show that he can last as an MLB starter (we overlook this). However, the good people that run the Yankees know a thing or two about baseball. If what YES reported today is true, and Hughes is the better starter right now, that still doesn’t mean much. Hughes will have an innings limit of about 150, like Joba last year, and it’s hard to see him posting an ERA much better than 4 over those innings. He’s certainly not yet shown he can do better as a starter. If both players pitch an average 6 innings a game then the Yankees will give up about 0.5 runs less in each of Hughes’ (fewer) starters than in Joba’s. That difference probably won’t cost the Yankees any wins because they’ll take Hughes out of the rotation at season’s end.
Given, therefore, that, unless one of these two players implodes, the Yankees don’t give up much starting Joba or Hughes, then the team has to start Joba. The team has to start Joba because even if he develops into a relatively bad starter the team needs that starter for the foreseeable future. Alternatively, if Joba goes back to the bullpen, and succeeds over the course of a full season, something he indicated he probably can do based on his postseason performance out of the pen, then the team will find it that much harder to put him back into the rotation in 2011. Joba will have put forward a full year in the ‘pen, and the pressure from fans and the media to keep him there will be stronger than ever.
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