This is something that many of us simply do not want to hear. Yet, it’s going to be a topic explored throughout Spring Training. Yes, those of us who stand adamantly in favor of Joba Chamberlain in the starting rotation are going to have to deal with him coming out of the bullpen, at least temporarily. Brian Cashman even says so:
“We’ll prepare him as a starter, get through spring training and then determine where he starts,” Cashman said. “He has an innings limit and won’t go start to finish as a starter. That won’t be allowed.
“It wouldn’t be safe, that’s our belief. You have to put the brakes on and make sure he stays healthy.”
As long as everyone stays healthy — far from a certainty, of course — the Yanks will enter the season with six starters: Wang, Pettitte, Mussina, Hughes, Kennedy, Joba. While there have been whispers of starting Kennedy in the minors, that makes little sense. He is poised to pitch more innings than either Joba or Hughes, so he’d fit best into the long-term rotation plan. He could go wire-to-wire as a starter.
There are options for both Hughes and Chamberlain. They could fit into some kind of faux six-man rotation, where Pettitte and Wang pitch every fifth day, and the other four battle for the three remaining spots. That could duly serve to limit the wear and tear on Mike Mussina — or just limit the number of poor innings he throws.
As we know, there are probably four bullpen spots up for grabs beyond those held down by Mo, Farns, and LaTroy. Yes, we could certainly see Joba slot in here. However, if this is done, it should not be as an 8th inning guy.
(Insert angry masses here, asking me sarcastically if I think Kyle Farnsworth should pitch that inning.)
The problem with inserting Joba into the 8th inning is comfort. We got real comfortable with him in that role last year, to the point where his previous accomplishments as a starter — you know, the entire reason he got a shot in the bullpen — were ignored. People saw him as the missing bullpen link for the Yanks. to the masses, he’s the Mike Stanton we’ve been missing.
So how do the Yanks best utilize him in the bullpen, while retaining the overall goal of inserting him into the starting rotation? I’ve said this before in comment threads, but I’m presenting it for all to see: Johan Santana in 2003.
Santana started 2003 in the bullpen, though not as the primary setup man to closer Eddie Guardado. Actually, that was the job of one LaTroy Hawkins — who posted a disgusting 1.86 ERA over 77.1 innings, walking only 15 goddamn guys all year. So Santana was deployed strategically. For his first four appearances of the year, nine innings of presumably warm-up ball, he came in fresh to start an inning. However, after that, he was usually called upon with men on base in sticky situations.
Then, on May 9, he was finally handed the ball as a starter, and pitched five innings of scoreless ball. He then went back to the bullpen for another month, getting the ball again on June 7, giving up one run over six innings — good enough to get the next start on June 13, when he also pitched excellently. After a few more relief appearances, he took the ball on July 11th, and never returned to the bullpen again.
Santana ended the season with 158.1 innings, a total I’m sure the Yankees brass would be thrilled with. He added another 7.2 IP in the playoffs — if you’ll remember, it was two starts against the Yanks in which he gave up six runs total.
So of course, if the Yanks plan to go deep into the playoffs, they’ll have to tweak Minnesota’s plan a bit. Joba probably wouldn’t hit the rotation full-time until late-late July or early August. This is 1) because of the playoff implications and 2) because he’d presumably pitch more frequently out of the pen than Johan did (He pitched in 27 games through July 11 as a reliever).
If the Yanks can commit to this, then I am fine with Joba starting the season in the pen. The team is going to have to get creative with his usage this year, and I think this is the best possible solution. However, I think that sticking him in the 8th inning role will make it all the more difficult to remove him from the bullpen.
The first step in solving this problem is to not allow yourself to become attached to him in any one role. This applies to him as a starter, too. He might hit some bumps in the road. If those bumps are serious, perhaps the Yanks should consider moving him back to the pen for the rest of the 2008 season. But that’s something we can address in August.
Observations of Johan’s 2003
Before I wrap up, I’d like to point out some things I noticed about Johan with the Twins in 2003. First, he pitched better as a starter. Over 110.1 innings, he posted a 2.85 ERA with 109 strikeouts and just 27 walks. As a reliever, he pitched to a 3.56 ERA over 48 innings, striking out 60 and walking 20.
In relief, his worst outings were those in which he pitched the longest. He hadn’t allowed a run until April 26, where he allowed two in 2.2 innings. Then again, he had pitched four innings on April 10 (against the Yanks), allowing no runs and striking out eight. But he had problems with longer relief outings later on, giving up four runs in three innings on May 15, three runs in 1.1 innings on June 27, and four runs over three innings on July 5, his final relief appearance of the year.
He did hit some bumps as a starter, too. Five runs over 5.1 innings on July 23, and then another five runs in 5.2 innings in his next start. And then he let up seven runs in four innings on September 5. Other than that, though, he was brilliant, hitting double-digit strikeouts in consecutive starts — and one of them was in just six innings. He preceded those starts by striking out eight over eight innings, allowing just four hits and walking one while giving up no runs.
Clearly, this guarantees nothing. But it’s an apt comparison, and one I think the Yanks can benefit from greatly.