In the wake of Boston extending Clay Buchholz, I couldn’t help but think about the healthy number of young, good-to-excellent starting pitchers across baseball that have seen their teams jump to extend them prior to hitting free agency these last few years, and that the Yankees have remained noticeably absent from this practice.
The Yankees’ AL East rivals in particular have been quite active in this arena, with the Sox wisely extending Jon Lester back in 2009; the Blue Jays locking up Ricky Romero; and three-fifths of the Rays’ rotation — James Shields, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann — having signed assorted team-friendly deals buying out their arb years that also contain a slew of club options. Other notable young hurlers signed early and removed from potential free agency in recent years include Josh Johnson, Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander, not coincidentally arguably among the top five righthanded pitchers in the game.
Now, knowing what we know now, it appears the Yankees have made the right decision each and every time out in potentially buying out the arbitration and early free agent years of their finest homegrown pitchers of the last decade, specifically Chien-Ming Wang, Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. There was a fair amount of noise made that the Yankees might want to think about locking Wang up after he established himself as a solid #2-type pitcher, but obviously the team’s knowledge of his injury history precluded them from ever seriously considering the idea. I don’t remember seeing as much of a push from either the mainstream or blogosphere regarding signing Hughes or Joba longer-term, but I seem to recall some pondering whether the Yankees would be better off buying Hughes out before he got too expensive. Now it seems almost eerily prophetic that the Yankees have not approached any of their young hurlers with extensions.
In light of where each of these pitchers currently stands today, I can’t help but wonder whether there is some sort of organizational flaw when it comes to developing starters. It’s still way too early for us to know what Hughes will end up becoming, and it’s entirely possible he ends up working his issues out and can become a dependable Major League pitcher, but as many have noted he’s carried a 5.00-plus ERA since last May, and the lack of an offspeed pitch (not to mention the current lack of velocity and command) has been a significant problem.
As for Joba, I’ve spent more words than I know what to do with questioning why the Yankees have decided he’ll never be a starting pitcher again, but given that this once-highly-promising arm is now relegated to relief duty, I consider the inability/unwillingness to develop Chamberlain as a starter to be one of the biggest failures of the Yankee regime of the last several seasons.
Regarding Wang, the Yankees were able to get roughly three-and-a-half pretty good seasons out of the sinkerballer, and it’s obviously not the team’s fault that his career derailed itself the way it did, but I still want to include him simply because he’s the only other young starter of recent vintage that the Yankees have used and received production out of for an extended period of time
Now this isn’t meant to be a wholesale attack on the organization — the fact is that breaking into Major League Baseball as a young pitcher is perhaps the toughest path to a successful big league career, and even the most extraordinarily talented hurlers are no sure thing to be able to consistently retire hitters at the MLB level, not to mention the incredibly high probability of injury and uncertainty of being able to continually refine one’s approach as the league makes adjustments due to the incredible amount of data at every team’s disposal — almost all of this is entirely on a pitcher. But there has to be some level of culpability at the organizational level. I know the Yankees aren’t alone in seeing promising young pitchers not reach their potential, but it’s also almost inconceivable that the last time the Yankees developed a true #1 starter was in the 1970s with Ron Guidry. Andy Pettitte was a wonderful Yankee and terrific pitcher, but I don’t think anyone ever thought of Andy as a true ace, even if he did pitch like one often.
If you asked a Yankee fan in 2007 what the team’s best case-scenario rotation-wise would be come 2011, the answer would likely have included a near-fully homegrown rotation of Hughes, Joba and Wang (and perhaps Ian Kennedy). Now only Hughes is in the rotation, and we’re not even certain what the future holds for the young righthander.
To paraphrase reader Andy, who pointed out in Friday’s live game chat that if the Yankees had even an inkling that none of these players were going to be able to hold up as starting pitchers for multiple seasons, why even bother with inane innings restrictions like the “Joba rules” and “Hughes rules”? Of course one of the counterpoints to this line of thinking is “well, they had no idea either pitcher would suffer the injuries/setbacks that they have.” While I understand the reasoning behind wanting to limit a young pitcher’s innings, in both hurler’s’ cases the team has come up on the short end of the stick as far as developing reliable young starting pitchers goes, leading me to believe that Andy may have a pretty good point — why not just get as much out of your young starting pitchers as you can, especially if they’re likely to get injured anyway? This is more or less what the team did with Wang. I’m not saying I necessary agree with this — I’m still thinking things through myself — but I am starting to wonder whether the accepted process of babying a young hurler along is really the most successful way for an organization to coax as many high-quality innings out of an arm as possible.
Now on the flip side perhaps the Yankees erred by not babying either Hughes or Chamberlain enough. After all, both were brought up during the 2007 season, a year when few thought either would appear in the Bronx. Hughes had all of five triple A starts under his belt at the time of his call-up to the rotation in April, while Chamberlain had made a mere three AAA starts before being tabbed to save the bullpen that July. I don’t think anyone would argue with the notion that both pitchers could’ve used more seasoning prior to reaching the Majors. Let this be a lesson to those clamoring for Manny Banuelos in 2011 — if the Yankees have learned anything from the past, they won’t even consider bringing Banuelos up to the Bronx this season, no matter how desperate the team may get for pitching. We’ve already seen this movie, and, from what we can tell, it doesn’t exactly have the happiest of endings.
However, when Banuelos is finally deemed ready for the Show, it seems like an ideal scenario would be that he’s accrued enough innings under his belt at AAA that he’s fully ready to go with no innings restrictions and/or jostling between the rotation and the bullpen. While I appreciate wanting to protect one’s investment, there’s no guarantee any of these guys are going to work out and/or stay healthy long-term, so why not run a fully-developed prospect out there and get as much as you can out of him from the get-go? I know King Felix is a once-in-a-lifetime pitcher, but once the Mariners made the call to add him to the rotation he’s never pitched fewer than 190 innings in a full season. Verlander’s thrown at least 186 in each of his full seasons. Lester jumped from 63 innings in 2007 after coming back from cancer to 210.1 in 2008. I know every pitcher is built differently, but again, given that the Yankees have handled Hughes and Chamberlain with an absurd amount of care and they still managed to get injured, perhaps it’s time for the organization to rethink its philosophy on innings limits.
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