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June 10, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Trials of Joba

by Jay Jaffe

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Some 24 hours after placing Joba Chamberlain on the disabled list with what was reportedly a flexor strain, the Yankees announced that a dye-contrast MRI revealed that their star set-up man had suffered a torn ligament in his elbow. Instead of being lost for a matter of weeks, Chamberlain is almost certainly headed for Tommy John surgery, ending his season and leaving the Yankees’ bullpen in total disarray.

Prior to losing Chamberlain, the Yankees had already lost the two biggest free-agent additions of general manager Brian Cashman's winter of discontent. Righty Rafael Soriano hasn't pitched since May 13 due to elbow inflammation; as of May 25, he was expected to be out six to eight more weeks, which means he likely won't be back until after the July 12 All-Star game. Signed to a three-year, $35 million deal over the GM's objections, Soriano had gotten off to a rough start in the Bronx, getting lit for a 5.40 ERA while posting a 10/11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 15 innings, failing Accountability 101 to boot. At least he made it to the regular season, which is more than can be said for Pedro Feliciano, whom Cashman signed to a two-year, $8 million deal despite feeling that the lefty had been overworked to the point of abuse as a Met. After he began the year on the disabled list due to shoulder discomfort, doctors discovered he had a tear in his shoulder capsule, which will likely need shoulder surgery.

In their absence, Chamberlain and David Robertson have done the bulk of the heavy lifting in front of Mariano Rivera, and done it well:

Pitcher

G

IP

HR/9

BB/9

SO/9

IR

IS

ERA

SIERA

Chamberlain

27

28.2

0.9

2.2

7.5

10

2

2.83

3.04

Robertson

26

23.1

0.0

6.9

14.7

25

6

1.16

2.97

Chamberlain's ERA has dropped by more than a run and a half from his beefy 2010 mark of 4.40, but his SIERA has barely budged from last year's 3.16; his improved results owe much to a 60-point drop in batting average on balls in play (from .327 to .267).

Which isn't to say that he hadn't advanced considerably as a pitcher. With a nod to his days as a starter (sigh), he has reincorporated his curveball into his arsenal, throwing it 12.6 percent of the time, up from 7.3 percent. "[It] just allows me not to throw my slider as much,” Chamberlain told Marc Carig recently. "You see something with a different spin, then it just allows my slider to be the pitch it has been in the past." His revamped arsenal has drawn rave reviews: "Stuff is back, throws strikes,” said one opposing scout. "He’s nails."

With Chamberlain in tow, the Yankee bullpen came into Thursday with the league's best ERA (2.86, 0.39 ahead of the next-best team), and had allowed the lowest percentage of inherited runners to score (20 percent). Both marks owe much to the unit's success in avoiding the long ball; even playing in one of the majors' most homer-conducive parks, their 0.5 HR/9 is by far the league's best. Chamberlain had allowed homers at nearly double that clip, but his HR/FB rate is up above 15 percent, primed to come back to earth.

As it stands, the Yankees' current bullpen besides Rivera, Robertson, and lefty Boone Logan looks like a non-roster invitation starter kit. Luis Ayala has stepped up to post a 1.47 ERA and a 14/4 strikeout-to-unintentional-walk ratio in 18 1/3 innings of medium-leverage work, but the 33-year-old righty hasn't been healthy and effective since 2005 (shades of Bartolo Colon). Amauri Sanit is a 31-year-old Cuban defector who served a PED suspension last year; he owns a 5.99 ERA in 76 2/3 career innings at Triple-A, but an obscene 25/7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 19 innings this season has gotten him a couple of looks in the Bronx. Lance Pendleton is a 27-year-old righty who didn't even reach Triple-A until late last year; plucked away by the Astros in the Rule 5 draft, he returned at the end of spring training. Pendleton began his big-league career by making seven scoreless appearances scattered around trips on the Scranton shuttle, but the Red Sox inaugurated the non-Cinderalla portion of his career on Wednesday night, connecting for two homers and three runs off him during mop-up time. Jeff Marquez is a 26-year-old ground-baller, a former supplemental first-round pick (2004) sent to the White Sox in the Nick Swisher deal back in November 2008. The Yankees plucked him off the waiver wire this week, and he's no savior, having compiled a 5.40 ERA and 5.7 K/9 in three years at Charlotte, where he worked as a starter.

The team’s options at Triple-A are modest. Kevin Whelan, a 27-year-old acquired in the Gary Sheffield trade way back in November 2006, has a 1.67 ERA and a tasty 30/6 K/BB ratio in 27 innings. George Kontos, a 26-year-old, is a Tommy John surgery and Rule 5 (Padres) survivor with a 2.64 ERA and a 32/11 K/BB ratio in 30 2/3 innings, but his fly-balling nature may not be a good fit in the Bronx. Second-tier prospects D.J. Mitchell, Adam Warren, and David Phelps, all currently occupying the Scranton rotation, were cited by Cashman as candidates for a look, but there are few true plus pitches to be had between the three. Nor do they miss many bats, though Phelps' 66/20 K/BB ratio in 76 1/3 innings looks good on paper. Among the Ayala-class retreads on the Scranton roster are 33-year-old journeyman Buddy Carlyle, who has made seven appearances for the big club, and 25-year-old Kanekoa Texeira, a Hawaiian righty acquired in the Swisher deal but subsequently lost to the Mariners as a Rule 5 pick. However, Texeira is currently on the seven-day disabled list and unlikely to be a first call.

Absent from Cashman's short list are Mark Prior, who turned heads during spring training but currently resides on Scranton's disabled list (where else?) due to an abdominal injury, and the so-called "Killer B's," Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, and Andrew Brackman, all off to relatively rocky starts this year. Brackman has been lit for a 6.75 ERA at Scranton while walking 6.9 per nine, more than he has struck out. The other two have both faced control problems at Double-A Trenton, and Cashman is adamant about leaving them in place. Via ESPN New York's Wally Matthews:

Cashman ruled out Banuelos and Brackman on "performance'' issues, and Betances because he has not pitched above AA. Currently, Banuelos, who turned 20 in March, is 2-0 with a 2.84 ERA for the AA Trenton Thunder, but Cashman said, "He needs better fastball command. His stuff's great but he's not throwing as well as he's capable of throwing. So he's not an option on performance alone.''

One Scrantonite who could figure in the Yankees' plans, either directly or indirectly, is Hector Noesi, a 24-year-old righty sent down after tossing six solid innings in relief of Freddy Garcia on Tuesday. In four appearances out of the big club's bullpen, Noesi has posted a 1.76 ERA in 15 1/3 innings and shown impressive poise while working through a four-pitch arsenal. The Yankees intend to keep him stretched out given the fragile nature of their rotation, because Ivan Nova is on thin ice, and who knows how many more innings Garcia and Colon have in their surgically-repaired arms? Nova has pitched to a 4.50 ERA, averaging 4.4 strikeouts per nine, and just 5.4 innings per start. He has struggled to establish a third pitch, throwing his fastball or curveball more than 90 percent of the time, is generating the majors' lowest swinging-strike rate among ERA qualifiers at 3.9 percent, and has been hit at a .300/.367/.433 clip when facing hitters more than once in a start during the course of his short career, compared to .224/.311/.366 in his initial confrontations. Those numbers suggest a future in the bullpen, where at least his fastball could play up into the mid-90s. Slot Noesi into the rotation in his stead, and the team may be the better for it.

Also lurking on the periphery of this picture is Phil Hughes, who has been on the disabled list due to shoulder weakness since mid-April after getting lit up like a pinball machine in three starts. He reportedly threw 92 mph in a simulated game on Thursday and has been cleared to begin a rehab assignment; he'll start for the Gulf Coast Yankees on Tuesday. Hughes thrived in a set-up role for the Yankees during the last four months of 2009, when he posted a 1.40 ERA, 11.4 strikeouts per nine, and a 5.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 51 1/3 innings, and with the Yankee starters getting by without him (mid-pack in ERA, strikeout rate, and quality start rate), it's tempting to yearn for such familiar comforts. Nonetheless, Cashman is adamant that Hughes is being prepared as a starter, and thus isn't an option for the bullpen.

In spite of the Yankees' current bind, that should be music to the ears of those critical over the team’s handling of Chamberlain. After debuting as a reliever in late 2007 under the Joba Rules, Chamberlain split his season between both poles of the pitching staff in 2008, thriving as a starter before suffering a shoulder strain late in the season. After getting a good jump to 2009, he flamed out as a starter once the Yankees manipulated him to keep him under an innings cap. The Yankees sent him back to the bullpen in the spring of 2010 after he lost out to Hughes for the fifth starter job in a competition many feel was rigged, and refused to consider him as a candidate after they lost out on Cliff Lee and watched Andy Pettitte retire. Ultimately, the team was so seduced by the thought of re-harnessing the fist-pumping, fire-breathing JobaManiac that they overlooked the presence of a frontline starter who had given them 176 innings of 3.27 ERA work before they began messing with his workload—and ultimately his head. Cashman used the shoulder strain as an excuse for consigning him to the bullpen; in light of the fact that Chamberlain didn't experience the pain normally associated with a UCL tear and could have been pitching through it for some time, it's fair to wonder just how much damage he has endured.

In any case, the backs of 29 other rotations are filled with guys owning far more pedestrian stuff than Young Joba, and this sad news reminds us that a bullpen job is no guarantee of avoiding an operating table. Between innings limits, role changes, Joba Rules changes, and the disappearance of the "Class of 2008"—Chamberlain, Hughes, and Ian Kennedy—from their roster, it's clear that the Yankees don't know anything more about developing young pitchers than any other franchise, and possibly quite a lot less, which is why nobody should bemoan their keeping the Killer B's away from this current mess.

 Cashman will work the phone lines in search of outside help, and while he says that there's no reliever trade market open yet ("The headache stuff is available," he said recently), bodies will change places as the deadline draws near, and the Yankees are certain to be players in the market for this year’s equivalent to Kerry Wood—which, come to think of it, could be Wood given the Cubs’ current standing. In the meantime, the Yankees will have to look within for the answer, both as to how they will get through Chamberlain’s injury, and how they might possibly handle the prized young arms that will follow. 

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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