Joba Chamberlain was or wasn’t almost traded for Dan Haren on July 23, according to various rumors. The veracity of those alleged trade negotiations isn’t really important today, but we know that other teams felt comfortable asking for Joba at the trade deadline even if the Yanks weren’t keen on shipping off their 24-year-old erstwhile phenom.
Since that near-non-trade, Joba has pitched better out of the bullpen than he had in the months prior to the rumors. That great regression — one that said Joba’s high K rates and low home run rates should have led to better results — seemed to kick in, and in 15.2 innings since late July, Joba has allowed just five earned runs on nine hits and four walks. He has 12 strike outs to complement that 2.87 ERA, and while not totally dominating, Joba has been flashing his plus stuff and getting the job done.
Interestingly, as the last few weeks have seemingly restored some semblance of faith in Joba, they’ve also shown me how the Yankees view him. Shortly before the Haren trade rumors swirled, the Yanks lost Andy Pettitte to a groin injury. To plug what they thought would be a four- to six-week hole, the team first turned to Sergio Mitre and later handed the ball to Dustin Moseley. While Moseley has made some solid starts, including one against Josh Beckett and the Red Sox, neither Mitre nor Moseley have been revelations in the rotation.
Meanwhile, as Moseley has sputtered along, other Yankee starters have struggled as well. A.J. Burnett is 3-10 over his last 15 outings with an ERA of 6.86, and Javier Vazquez has lost and perhaps regained his rotation spot since a dead-arm period sent his stuff and numbers tumbling. With Phil Hughes showing some signs of fatigue in his last outing and fast approaching an innings limit, the Bombers had to call upon Ivan Nova to pitch some key games amidst a pennant race in late summer. If only they had another starting pitcher with Major League experience on the team…
Of course, it’s clear now where I’m going with this summary of the state of the Yankees’ starting rotation. At no point since mid-July when the Yanks’ pitching problems started to pop up did the Bombers consider moving Joba Chamberlain from the bullpen to the starting rotation, and I can’t figure out why not. Since 2007, Joba’s role on the team has been a hot topic. He was a starting pitcher throughout college, was drafted as one and rocketed through the system as one. The Yanks moved him to the bullpen three years ago to limit his workload and give the Big League club an impact arm when they had to build a Bridge to Mariano more solid than Kyle Farnsworth. Three season later, Joba Chamberlain remains in limbo.
To start the 2010 season, the Yankees claimed Phil Hughes and Joba would fight it out for the fifth starter spot, but as early as January, we heard that the Yanks had all but decided to hand the job to Phil. When Joba struggled in Grapefruit League action, Hughes won the job, and Joba was banished to the bullpen for the entire season. The team, Brian Cashman said, wanted to keep a cap on Joba’s workload but still saw him as a starter going forward.
If that was truly the case, Joba should have been starting this summer. He wasn’t good enough early on as a reliever to justify keeping him in a high-leverage set-up role, and he’s been a part of Joe Girardi’s mix-and-match approach to the 6th, 7th and 8th innings lately. He could have been moved out of the bullpen mix and into the rotation without weakening the team’s late-innings needs, and he could have built up the innings he needs if he’s going to be in the mix for a starting job next year.
The truth about Joba is that he hasn’t been a bad starting pitcher. He made 43 starts before turning 24, and he went 12-9 with a 4.18 ERA/4.07 FIP in 221.2 innings. He 8.4 K/9 IP is an impressive mark for such a young pitcher, but he walked too many guys. When he was bad, he was really bad, and some of the late-2009 abbreviated starts make his overall numbers look worse than he performed as a starter. Still, none of his numbers or the results scream out “failure” as a starting pitcher, and he certainly showed some brilliance both before and after his 2008 shoulder injury.
For now, Joba remains a pitching enigma on the Yanks. At a time when the Yanks could use a proven Major League starter, he’ll finish out the year in the bullpen. If the Yanks go deep into October, he could rack up around 75-80 innings pitched this year, and the Yanks are seemingly ready to throw him back into the rotation next year. Someone in the Yankee organization knows what the plan is for Joba, but today, I remain as mystified with the team’s treatment of this potentially valuable arm as I was last year. The Yankees, it seems, just can’t figure out what to do with Joba Chamberlain.