Unquestionably, the loss of Joba Chamberlain to Tommy John Surgery is a huge blow to the Yankee’s chances of winning the World Series this year. The loss of Chamberlain makes the Yankee bullpen much thinner (pun sort of intended), putting additional pressure on David Robertson (to keep pitching well under what will certainly be heavy usage), Luis Ayala (to keep pitching surprisingly well), Rafael Soriano (to get healthy), and the Yankee rotation (to give more length). All of this is well documented and incredibly unfortunate, but not the focus of this post. Instead, I want to explore whether this unfortunate occurrence may provide the Yankees with an opportunity to explore the possibility of returning Joba to the rotation in 2012 and beyond.
There were a number of arguments against using Joba in the rotation, including his inability to stay healthy as a starter, his stuff playing up better in the bullpen, and the Yankees’ need for a “bridge to Mariano.” All of these arguments remain true, and likely will be so upon Joba’s (hopefully) healthy return. However, I think the long process of surgery and rehab should give the Yankees reason to consider using Joba in the rotation. There are a number of reasons why I think this may be the case:
1. Need: With few elite starters set to hit the market anytime soon (Jered Weaver is the notable exception that comes to mind), the Yankees may be faced with the decision of overpaying for a mid-rotation or back-end starter. Joba may not be able to fill a rotation spot in 2012 (assuming he has to miss part of the season to rehab) but come 2013, the Yankees’ most viable rotation options look to be Sabathia, Burnett, and Hughes, with one or more of the Killer B’s also in contention if everything goes according to plan. A healthy and effective Joba could potentially be a better option than a mediocre free agent fill-in.
2. The rehab process: Many of the concerns about Joba as a starter had to do with his lack of conditioning and fragility. Rehab from Tommy John Surgery is a very intense process, requiring pitchers to condition themselves well and build arm strength basically from scratch. This may present Joba with an opportunity to get himself in better shape, and allow him to handle the rigors of pitching in the rotation. The long rehab period will give the Yankees time to make sure Joba is 100% healthy and in tip-top form prior to returning to the major league roster.
3. The surgery could “fix” him: Much ink has been spilled about Joba’s missing velocity, but repairing his elbow ligament (and building his arm strength) could allow Joba to rediscover his old dynamite fastball, which could make him more effective as a starter (and a reliever as well, of course). There are plenty of cases of pitchers coming back from Tommy John Surgery stronger than ever (including Josh Johnson, whom Girardi supposedly ruined by having him pitch after a rain delay). The surgery may also help Joba the starter be more durable.
4. Changing pitch mix: Throwing a lot of sliders is often considered a risk factor for elbow injuries, as the pitch puts significant strain on the elbow. As a reliever, Joba relied heavily on just 2 pitches, fastball and slider, to retire opposing hitters. In an attempt to protect his elbow, Joba may be forced to use his curveball more, improve his changeup, develop a 2-seam fastball, or some other means of expanding his repertoire. This could potentially make Joba a more effective starter, as opposed to when he was primarily a 2-pitch pitcher.
5. He got hurt as a reliever too: Joba apparently couldn’t stay healthy as a starter or a reliever, so why not try him out as a starter again to see if he could stay healthy after the surgery?
6. The Yankees may not need Joba in the ‘pen: David Robertson’s emergence this season makes him look like a viable option to be an 8th-inning guy or possible future closer should Mariano Rivera finally decide to hang up his spikes (a scary thought). Rafael Soriano will almost certainly be under contract as well, barring a sequence of surprising events. The Yankees may very well acquire a bullpen piece this season who could be under contract for the next year or two if they get desperate enough. My point is that there may be enough viable “bridges” to the closer when Joba comes back, or future closers, that there may be a greater need to have him in the rotation.
I realize a lot of these thoughts are fairly optimistic, but following this line of thinking, having Joba come back as a starter doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable. The crowd who always wanted Joba in the bullpen will make the same arguments for keeping him there, with the surgery as further evidence of his fragility. Joba’s time off will give the organization an opportunity to evaluate who they have as bullpen and rotation options so that when Joba comes back, he can be utilized in a manner that will be most valuable for the organization. It may be unrealistic to hope that the surgery will get Joba back to the dominant shutdown force we all remember when he first came up, but it is possible that his elbow has been holding him back all this time. It also requires us to hope that he will work hard at his rehab and conditioning to get himself in better shape. There may be significant blowback to any attempt to return Joba to the rotation, but for the reasons above, I believe it is an option that the Yankees should strongly consider.
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