Last off-season, readers of this blog and Yankee fans everywhere debated the fate of Joba Chamberlain, the dominant rookie reliever who helped the Yankees sneak into the playoffs in 2007. Despite his game-shortening ability as Mariano Rivera’s setup man, Chamberlain was converted to a starter for part of the 2008 season before tendinitis in his throwing shoulder sent him to the disabled list and eventually back to the bullpen.
Joba Chamberlain was effective as both a starter and a reliever last season. (Barton Silverman/The New York Times)Now with a revamped rotation for the 2009 season, a case can be made for keeping Chamberlain in the setup role. The Yankees simply do not need Chamberlain in the rotation the way they did last season.
Rather than rehash last year’s points, let’s look at the current situation. The strength of this argument depends heavily on whether or not the Yankees and Andy Pettitte come to an agreement. Pettitte has yet to accept the Yankees’ standing offer of one-year, $10 million to anchor the bottom of the rotation. Speculation is that the Yankees are willing to let ex-savior Phil Hughes play the part of fifth-starter if Pettitte refuses.
Should Pettitte return, is there any reason to believe (other than injuries) that the Yankees cannot survive with a rotation of C.C. Sabathia, Chien-Ming Wang, A.J. Burnett, Pettitte and Hughes?
Chamberlain in the bullpen would most likely make each starting pitcher better by shortening his starts. Fans concerned about Sabathia burning out in September or Burnett breaking down over the long haul could rest a little easier. A Chamberlain bridge would also make life easier for Rivera, who turned 39 in November and may not be able to crank out a two-inning save with as much ease as in the past.
In addition to keeping others healthy, Chamberlain could be healthier by remaining a reliever. There’s no questioning his effectiveness as a starter. His numbers as a starter last season (2.75 ERA and 10.3 K/9) were almost identical to his stats as a reliever (2.31 ERA and 11.1 K/9). But his shoulder injury came about as a starter, and fewer innings could only help him keep his shoulder strong.
A popular argument for having Chamberlain start is that you should not waste a player with such ability as a reliever because the more innings he can pitch the better. Wouldn’t you rather have 230 innings of Chamberlain rather than 90?
The problem with that argument is that you can say the same thing about Boston’s Jonathan Papelbon or a number of other great relievers. Are the Red Sox wasting Papelbon’s talent by limiting his innings and not converting him back to a starter?
If the Yankees used Chamberlain to shorten games to six innings, is that really a waste of talent? It sounds more like an incredible advantage to me.