In two weeks, everything old will be new again. Pitchers and catchers will make their ways down to Tampa or Arizona. They’ll run; they’ll throw; they’ll have pitchers’ fielding practice; and everyone will champion the return of baseball for yet another year of America’s Pastime.
For many, Spring Training is the time to rehash old story lines. This player vows to have a better year. That player is in the best shape of his life. This team feels its their year. You know the drill. For the Yankees, Spring Training means … Joba Chamberlain Drama! Who would have guessed?
As we all know, Joba has been subjected to more hand-wringing over his development over the last three years than any pitcher should be. He come up to the Majors in 2007 when the Yankees were in desperate need of bullpen help, and because Joe Torre could not be trusted with his relievers, the Yanks instituted Joba Rules. Then, as they transitioned him into a starting role in 2008, they adjusted the Rules to fit an innings limit. Then, in 2009, when Joba still had to pitch to an innings limit and be ready for post-season service, the Yanks tried to cap his innings in August.
Throughout this approach, Joba’s numbers suffered. An ace starter in college and the Minors, he started out strong in 2007 and carried that through to August 2008 when he suffered a shoulder injury in Texas. For reasons never discussed — was he injured? did he change his mechanics? — Joba in 2009 never regained the velocity he had a starter in 2008. He struggled through a sub-par 2009, going 9-6 with a 4.75 ERA and just 133 strike outs in 157.1 innings pitched. His walks were up; his home run totals were; his effectiveness was down.
In the postseason, though, Joba seemingly rediscovered his form. He threw 6.1 innings over 10 games, struck out 7 and allowed just a pair of runs. He walked just one, and although opponents hit an ugly .333/.345/.630 against him in a very limited sample size, he seemed more aggressive on the mound. As many — including one who shall remain nameless — have assumed today, Joba isn’t guaranteed anything for 2010. He’ll face competition for the fifth starter spot, and many still would prefer to see the Yanks waste a live arm on some mythical game where the eighth inning is more important than the previous seven frames.
Joba, though, and the Yanks will have none of that for now. Chamberlain spoke yesterday with reporters and said all the right things. He won’t be on an innings limit in 2010, and he is set to fight for his starting job coming out of the gate. “It’s something that’s going to be a battle,” Chamberlain said. “The greatest part about it is it’s not only going to make guys fight for that No. 5 spot, but it’s going to make our team better. We’re going to push each other and continue to try to outwork each other. That’s the greatest part about this game; not only do you push one another to do better, but the team is going to be better for it. Whatever happens, happens. I hope they’re ready because I worked my tail off to get where I’m at and I hope they do the same.”
The Yanks’ brass have been committed to Joba as a starter, but the team is prepared to push him in Spring Training too. “We’ll put the best guy that we feel can fill that spot and give us the best chance to win,” Joe Girardi said. Does Sergio Mitre really fit that bill?
The Yanks will head to Tampa with Alfredo Aceves, Sergio Mitre and Chad Gaudin as possible starters, but Joba’s real competition is Phil Hughes. The Yanks’ other live arm emerged as the team’s primary set-up man last summer and would be all but guaranteed a rotation spot had the team not traded for Javier Vazquez. As it stands, one of those two will emerge as the front-runner for the spot, and as Hughes faces an innings limit, Joba has a leg up. Nothing is guaranteed, though, and Joba knows it. The loser of this fight will probably head to the pen until someone in the rotation gets hurt. For the Yankees, that’s a comforting luxury to have.