Billy Beane put it best when he said, paraphrased, that you need three pitching prospects in order to get one major league starter. One will get hurt, one will backslide, and one will succeed. This is precisely why, in RAB’s halcyon days, we so strongly argued that the Yankees should keep Ian Kennedy, Phil Hughes, and Joba Chamberlain. If they traded the wrong one, they could end up with nothing to show for their top three prospects. Keeping all three, however, gave them a good chance at having a young, cost-controlled pitcher in the rotation, which allows the further benefit of spending money elsewhere.
With the Yankees’ big three, it didn’t quite work out the way Beane described it. There were successes, injuries, and backslides, but those results were scattered among the three. Both Chamberlain and Hughes have gotten hurt, and, to a degree, have backslid — though, before news of Joba’s season-ending elbow injury, it was more that he backslid and that Hughes got hurt. Ian Kennedy backslid in ways, got hurt, and then succeeded, albeit in an environment dramatically different than that of the Yankees. There are still chances for Hughes, and even Joba, to succeed, but it’s still pretty clear that these guys followed Beane’s axiom.
At this point, the development of these three is behind us. Kennedy is finding success elsewhere, and while Hughes and Joba could still succeed to degrees, I’m not sure it’s particularly likely at this point. This shouldn’t be surprising, since it is the nature of pitchers. There’s a reason for TINSTAPP — there is no such thing as a pitching prospect. There are only pitchers. They all develop at different paces, and they’re all susceptible to the same pitfalls. WIth so much attrition among pitchers, teams absolutely need a block of high-end prospects if they’re going to get even one from the group.
This is relevant to the Yankees now, just as it was four years ago. They have a new trio of top pitching prospects in Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, and Andrew Brackman. Right away, it appears that they’re going to take a different tack with this new group than they did with the Big Three. Brian Cashman made that relatively clear yesterday, when he said there were no plans to bring them up as relievers to help patch a spotty bullpen. Chances are, they also won’t call upon them to help in the rotation, either. That is, unless they display a certain degree of readiness.
The situation the Yankees face now is somewhat similar to the 2007 season. They were a bit more pitching starved then, as was evident when they called up Chase Wright to take a few starts. Eventually, though, they went to Hughes, despite him having made just a couple of starts at AAA, and despite him having pitched a career high 146 innings in 2006, after just 86.1 in 2005. His injury appeared to be a freak one, but he was never quite the same after that. He had a few good appearances, including a season-saving one in relief during the ALDS, but in 2008 he completely lost it. There might not be a causal link here, but I’m sure that the experience has the Yankees preferring to err on the side of caution nonetheless — especially when you consider the other two.
Both Chamberlain and Kennedy came up in the 2007 season as well. Chamberlain was so completely dominant as a starter in A and AA ball that the Yankees thought he could help save their spotty bullpen. He was nearing his innings limit anyway, so rather than have him make a few more starts in the minors and pack it up in September, the Yankees decided to have him finish his workload in relief. Of course, we know that a starter’s workload is different from a reliever’s, and perhaps bringing him to his innings limit in high-leverage situations in the majors wasn’t the best idea. It did help them make the playoffs in 2007, though. It also excited a fanbase, inciting the starter-reliever debate that still hasn’t died. (And will be reignited as Joba rehabs from surgery.) Kennedy’s debut was less of a big deal, but his good, if lucky, September performances gave him a rotation spot out of the chute in 2008, an experience from which the Yankees have clearly learned.
This time around, the Yankees are going to let the prospects speak for themselves, rather than let team necessity dictate their development paths. I’m certain that if the Yankees brought Dellin Betances into Joba’s old role that he’d succeed. He throws gas and has shown a propensity to miss bats. He might have control troubles, but as David Robertson has shown, if you can strike guys out you can often mask those troubles. And yes, many starters have come up as relievers before breaking into the rotation. At the same time, we can’t just use a blanket statement like that to make and examine decisions. If a pitcher isn’t developmentally ready to start in the bigs, will relieving in the bigs help excel that development? Or will it just prepare him for life in the bullpen? These are all questions that have to be asked of individual pitchers, and cannot be determined by a rule of thumb.
The good news is that the Yankees have three top-flight pitchers in their minor league system who, if developed fully, can help the team for years to come. Of course, chances are that only one will help. The others will make the bigs, maybe, and maybe even show signs of greatness. But the chances are great that one will backslide, one will get hurt, and one will succeed. The only way to find out which is which, though, is to let them continue developing their games. It will hurt the 2011 team for sure. But it stands to help the future Yankees to a greater degree.