Mar
19

2010 Season Preview: Whose future is now?

By

It seems like just yesterday, but it was actually way back in early 2007 that Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain were nothing more than a pair of exciting, yet unproven pitching prospects sitting in the Yankees’ farm system. Fast forward to today, and the unproven part of the equation still holds true to some extent, yet both players have lived what feels like a baseball lifetime since they last appeared on any prospect list.

Despite being just 23- and 24-years-old, respectively, Hughes and Joba have each experienced a roller coaster of success and failure in just a little over two years of big league service time. Hughes dealt with both injury and ineffectiveness as a starter before hitting his stride out of the bullpen last year, while Joba enjoyed success out of the bullpen before finding out that life isn’t easy as a starter in the AL East. It wasn’t always pretty, but the duo combined to provide the team with 243.1 innings of 4.14 ERA quality pitching on it’s way to the 2009 World Championship.

But that was then and this is now. The reality of life going into the 2010 season is that there is just one rotation spot for these two players. The one that doesn’t get that spot faces an uncertain fate. More than likely he’ll end up back in the bullpen working in some unknown capacity, but an assignment to Triple-A is not out of the question. Even though the Yankees are in a perpetual win-now mode, their decision will have an impact beyond 2010 because of where each player is in the development process.

Joba started last season as the number five starter, but he was quickly bumped up to number four status when Chien-Ming Wang‘s shoulder betrayed him. Working with reduced velocity, he entered the month of August with a shiny 3.58 ERA but a not great 4.33 FIP, though he struggled the rest of the way – not coincidentally, once the Joba Rules took effect – and finished the season with a 4.75 ERA that damn near matched his 4.82 FIP. It was certainly not what the Yankee faithful expected out of Joba, but I think we need to keep in mind just how unique his situation is. Just five other pitchers his age have managed to throw 150 innings in a single season in the AL East during the wildcard era, and just two of those five were able to post a better than league average ERA (Scott Kazmir in 2007, Jesse Litsch in 2008).

The bad news is that four of those five pitchers would make at least one trip to the disabled the very next season, and collectively their ERA would go from 4.40 ERA (4.28 FIP) to 4.74 (4.79 FIP). The lone survivor of the group is Edwin Jackson, who went from a 5.76 ERA (4.90 FIP) in 161 IP as a 23-year-old in 2007 to a 4.42 ERA (4.88 FIP) in 183.1 IP as a 24-year-old in 2008. Even though his ERA dropped nearly a run and a half, his core peripheral stats remained the same, suggesting that he didn’t improve much as a pitcher, if at all. If he does end up serving as the fifth starter in 2010, history is not on Joba’s side when it comes to a breakout.

Let’s see what the projection systems say…

Well, these don’t really do us much good. CHONE projects Joba to work strictly in relief next season, while CAIRO and ZiPS see him splitting time between the rotation and bullpen. If we completely remove the CHONE projection, we get a 4.15 ERA (3.99 FIP) and 1.42 WHIP in 156.1 IP as a (mostly) starter. These things are really unpredictable for young players with limited track records, so this don’t shed much light on anything.

Really, the most important thing to know about Joba heading into the 2010 season is that he’s finally stretched out and the Joba Rules are no more. Between the regular season and playoffs last year, he piled up 163.2 innings, putting him on track for 190-200 next year. If the Yankees send Joba back to the bullpen for the entire season, all that hard work over the last two years will have been for naught.

As for Hughes, he’s in an even weirder place than Joba. After making six good starts and one complete stinker last season, he moved to the bullpen and literally became the best setup man in the business. He held opponents to a .172-.228-.228 batting line out of the bullpen, posting a gaudy 1.40 ERA (1.94 FIP). All told, Hughes threw 111.2 innings last season (majors, minors, playoffs), his most since a career high 146 IP in 2006. There’s really very little precedent for a pitcher as young as Hughes having that kind of success in the bullpen over that long of a period of time, except for maybe former Halos’ closer Francisco Rodriguez, who last started a game in A-ball.

Time to turn to the projections…

Well these don’t really do much for us, but we knew that would be the case going in given Hughes’ unsettled track record. CHONE is the only system to go out on a limb and project him exclusively as a starter, while the other systems go the part-time starter/part-time reliever route. The Yanks have maintained that they envision him in the rotation long-term, so we’re in very muddy water here. If Hughes spent all of 2010 in the rotation, he would likely be looking at cap of 150 innings or so, putting him on track for his first unabridged season in 2011. I think we all know that Hughes can be a successful reliever if he returned to the bullpen in 2010, though maybe not as dominant as he was last year. As a starter, we really have no idea what to expect.

So the Yankees have a pretty big decision to make. They are stuck in the enviable position of having two high-ceiling players on the right side of 25 for one rotation spot. Of course, the Yanks could always call an audible and decide the best team going forward features both Hughes and Joba in the bullpen, but that would be a major upset. Both players are expected to be core pieces of the rotation going forward with the fallback option of becoming quality late-game relievers.  The 2010 season is just the next step in developing both Hughes and Joba into cornerstones pitchers.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Categories : Pitching

31 Comments»

  1. Tseng says:

    I sure hope both of them end up in the rotation this year, and pitch well doing so. If Andy retires and Javy goes to FA, we’ll have 2 holes in the rotation next year if one is limited to relief duty.

    • 2010 Yankee opening day rotation:
      CC-AJ-Javy-Joba-Hughes. Andy retires, Jazzy has a solid season and reups on a 2/25M.

      We eschew all the big ticket FA pitchers; our only offseason import is Carl Crawford.

      You heard it here first.

      • bexarama says:

        Andy retired already? ;)

      • thurdonpaul says:

        i assume you meant 2011

      • Slu says:

        My prediction for 2011 is CC-Lee-AJ-Hughes-Joba.

        And that doesn’t mean no Crawford either, but if it comes down to it, I’d prefer pitching over left field. Especially having two dominant lefties for Yankee Stadium.

        If Lee is there, you have to make him the top priority, IMO.

        • smurfy says:

          Amen on your second paragraph.

          But, don’t you want CC – AJ – Lee – Javy – Hughes/Chamberlain

          Those young arms are still tender, even tho they’re swinging on 6’4 or 5″ and 480 pounds between them.

      • Accent Shallow says:

        I certainly wouldn’t complain (and I’d probably prefer that rotation), but I’d be very surprised if either Beckett or Lee isn’t getting fitted for pinstripes next offseason.

  2. Steve H says:

    Despite being just 23- and 24-years-old

    Just to put this in perspective, here is what some well known pitchers were doing at 23, as Joba was last year, and Phil will be this year.

    Roy Hallday 10.64 ERA, 2.20 WHIP

    Johan Santana Still being bounced around between pen and rotation (wow, this happens elsewhere?)

    Tim Lincecum 4.00 ERA in the NL West, 1.27 WHIP

    CC Sabathia 4.12 ERA, 1.32 WHIP (with almost 600 innings of experience between ages 20-22)

    Cliff Lee 10.1 innings to his name

    • Yes, but Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Jamaican Justin Masterson, Brandon Arroyo, Pedro Martinez, Oil Can Boyd, and every other pitcher the Boston Red Sox ever grew in their awesome homegrown minor league system of awesomeness all arrived in the bigs at 21 as fully formed, polished, finished, instant Cy Young contenders.

      Obviously we’re either doing something wrong or these guys are busts who don’t have the elite stuff to hack it (but they’ll be dynamite in the pen, which suits their temperaments anyway… but I digest.)

      • bexarama says:

        You forgot to mention that all those guys were scouted and personally developed by Theo the Awesome. Including Pedro Martinez.

      • smurfy says:

        Hope this isn’t bad form, pecking thru the discussions, and commenting. I dunno about the rest of them, but Lester is an interest: no problems jumping from 60 innings in 2007 to 200 in 2008 as a 24 year old. No worries? No Verducci effects? Not in 2009, for sure.

    • Jammy Jammers says:

      That’s very interesting. Thanks.

    • Thomas says:

      Felix Hernandez had a 2.49 ERA in 238 innings with 1.135 WHIP at age 23.

      DAYUM.

    • Tank the Frank says:

      Hell just look at a number of young starters in the game today who are struggling: David Price, Clay Buchholz, Ricky Romero, Gio Gonzalez, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey…

      I’m sure there are more. Of course there are exceptions like Brett Anderson and Rick Porcello, but all of these guys were either highly regarded pitching prospects or first-round picks that are struggling.

  3. Hughesus Christo says:

    I hate to say it, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to see Andy feel a twinge this weekend.

    PUT ONE IN SCRANTON, PLEASE.

    • bexarama says:

      I know what you’re saying and in theory I’m like, “Yeah, not the worst thing in the world,” but I know if it actually happened I would cry. For, like, days.

    • aka:\\link says:

      Also, just because there is a great fall-back plan doesn’t mean we would actually want to fall back on it. If it was better than plan A, it would be plan A.

  4. matthaggs says:

    Joba starter, Hughes bullpen. Not complicated.

    Joba will be fine as a fifth starter and Hughes will be excellent in the bullpen, and everyone will shut up. And next year Hughes does what Joba will do this year.

    Barring injury this year’s rotation has 4 horses in it. They can afford to give Joba every opportunity to succeed (unlike last year when Wang went down, the pen got maxed out, and Joba’s spot became much more important).

    My opinion based on nothing (is the Post hiring?) is that Joba was the guy all along but he’s the type of kid that needs a little extra motivation. They’re making him earn it.

    • Stryker says:

      next year Hughes does what Joba will do this year.

      partly false, i’d say. joba is limit-less (though they most likely won’t let the guy go anywhere near 200 IP) whereas hughes will probably still be on a limit given his being a bullpen fixture after 2 straight seasons.

      • matthaggs says:

        Right. Should have said Hughes next year will be like Joba two years ago.

      • OldYanksFan says:

        Not if he starts. They’ll let him go 150-160 IP this year, which is basically a full season this year. That’s ehy I say Andy to the pen, so Phil is full throttle next year.

    • Steve H says:

      My opinion based on nothing (is the Post hiring?)

      ::Golf clap::

    • pete says:

      “barring injury”

      any time you have to use that phrase, you’re opening up a HUGE hole in your argument. Injury is exactly why neither of these guys should be in the bullpen – while teams do occasionally get through a season with just five starters, they HAVE to assume that a major injury to a member of the starting staff is inevitable.

      Hughes’s value as starting insurance in AAA (that is to say, his value as a pitcher whose arm adjusted to the strikeout mentality of the bullpen last year enough that in all likelihood he’ll retain the ability to use either his FB or his curve as put-away pitches as a starter, and who is now starting in AAA, getting an opportunity to hone his 3rd and 4th pitches and being ready to throw deep into ballgames) in the very very likely event of starting pitcher injury (even if it is a minor one) is, in my opinion, quite a bit higher than his value as a MLB reliever for a club that already has Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, Damaso Marte, Alfredo Aceves, Chan Ho Park, and some combination of Chad Gaudin, Sergio Mitre, and Mark Melancon available as relievers.

      I believe that if Hughes pitches as a starter all year (in AAA until/unless he is needed in the majors because of injury), then this will mean that, in all likelihood, Aceves/Gaudin/Mitre/McAllister will not have to pitch more than a combined 10 or so starts this year. This is good not only because they would hurt the yankees chances to win when they pitched and thus the less they pitch the better, but also because if none of those guys is the primary back-up starter, then there’s not as great a chance that any of them need become a fixture in the rotation, thus there can be a little more selectivity on the part of the yankees in terms of who they have to start against.

      Girardi is very good at placing part-time players in situations to succeed. Look at the ’08 bullpen, look at Gardbrera last year, look at Chad Gaudin last year – all of them made the most out of small sample sizes, and i believe that this was, in part, because of Girardi’s efforts to set them up against the lowest levels of competition he could set them up against. A prescient manager like girardi can do a lot towards proactively manipulating small sample sizes so that they do not drag down the rest of the team’s performance. If Hughes is in the bullpen and a rotation member gets injured long-term, though, then one of those guys has to fill in long-term. Sending Gaudin out there for a spot start because Andy’s shoulder is a little tender is one thing. Sending him (or Mitre or Aceves – yes, I do believe that Aceves’s #s would fall precipitously were he to take on a full-time starting role) out there every 5th day, however, is quite another, and could hurt the team a lot.

      And yes, I realize that there is an argument out there that “it’s the 5th starter – who cares?”, but that just isn’t the place the AL East is at right now. Tampa has like 8 #3 caliber starters. Boston’s 5th starter is Clay Buccholz. Certainly there aren’t any teams out there who have aces pitching out of the #5 spot, but there isn’t a team in the AL-East without at least 5 ultra-talented starters, whether or not they have yet attained consistency. But who is to say that Clay Buccholz doesn’t break out this year? Who’s to say Wade Davis doesn’t? The yankees need to have their best starters starting, even if they can’t all be doing so at the MLB level, because at no point during the 2010 season will they be able to afford handing over a significant number of innings to mediocre pitchers, even if that’s what people have come to expect out of the #5 spot.

  5. thurdonpaul says:

    I think barring injuries Phil pitches 3 or 4 months in AAA, then we bring him to finish the year with the big guys. Then next year both Joba & Phil are starters the entire season.

  6. Paul Canales says:

    I like Bob Lorenz as an commentator

  7. SullyLV says:

    I feel Joba should be the 5th starter.He had only 88 innings in the minor leagues before getting called up in 07.The Yankee haven’t helped him the last two years with the way he has been handled.He is still learning how to pitch,but has to do it in the majors and of all places on the Yankees.Ron Darling pitched 400 innings in the minor leagues before he was called up.All Yankee fans love when a rookie comes up to play with the Yankees,but most don’t have the patience to watch him adjust while still learning.
    Lets try to remember that Joba is still only 24 years old.

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