Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Pleading The Fifth (Starter)

So far this spring, we've tried valiantly to steer clear of the 5th starter conversation, mostly because it's so far from being decided and thus is prone to baseless speculation. In fact, on Monday we used it as an example of the type overplayed subject that we typically try to avoid after a certain point of saturation. However, at the risk of boring you all to fucking tears, I'm going to run down some of the thoughts I have about this that go against the conventional New York tabloid wisdom.

First, regardless of what Joe Girardi and Dave Eiland would like you, Sergio Mitre and Chad Gaudin to believe, the 5th slot in the rotation is not an open competition. Obviously, it's in the best interest of the Yankees' coaches to try to convince Mitre or Gaudin that they are competitng for a spot as a motivational tool. Those two might find their way into the bullpen or increase their trade value as a corollary. In the short term, it might make even some sense to seriously consider one of them for that 5th spot. But in the big picture of the franchise, looking beyond 2010, it makes no sense.

As Joe from RAB pointed out last night, there's almost nothing in Sergio Mitre's track record that suggests he could be successful as a starter for a team in the AL, much less the AL East, much less the Yankees. The same probably could be said for Gaudin, but he has had better results thus fan into his career and has the ability to float between the rotation and the bullpen when needed. Either guy would be a decent option as a spot starter or in the case of an injury, but I don't think they should be the first choice when camp breaks regardless of how well they've been pitching. Small sample sizes and all of that.

As such, this is a essentially a two horse race between Hughes and Chamberlain with Alfredo Aceves being the only other candidate with a real shot. Considering that arming the top four places in their rotation cost them $62.75M this year, the Yankees should understand the value of a starting pitcher as well as any team. Hughes, Chamberlain and to a lesser extent Aceves are young, have high ceilings and several years of team control remaining. They are the ones who have the best shot at becoming low-cost rotation options for years to come.

The Yanks should be concerned with winning this year, but since their top four starters are so solid, they can probably afford to give that last spot (at least initially) to one of the players who is most likely to help the franchise in that role long term even if they haven't been the best this spring.

So what happens to the two guys out of the top three who don't get the first crack at the 5th spot? River Ave. Blues already discussed why it would be a waste to send Hughes and Aceves back to the minors, so they go to the bullpen. But what about Joba? Might he benefit from a trip down to the farm if he doesn't find his groove by the end of Spring Training?

Here are the two most oft-cited arguments against sending a player who has already achieved MLB success back to AAA:
  1. They have nothing left to prove.

  2. You are wasting their production by leaving them off the Major League roster.
As for the first one, this is more of a mental issue than a statistical one and probably varies on a case by case basis. Joba may take umbrage with being sent back to Scranton and that in turn could harm his production. More importantly though, I don't think that this platitude even applies to the 2010 version of Joba.

The last time Joba pitched in the minors, Doug Mientkiewicz was still on the Yankees. He's only thrown 88 1/3 innings down on the farm and only 8 in AAA. Compare that to Phil Hughes, who has 330 MiLB IP under his belt.

More importantly - as we so often remind ourselves when trying to reason with those who think Joba was born to be a reliever - he's not the same pitcher he was in 2007. He's not working with the same velocity and is now attempting to mix in his curveball and his changeup significantly more often. I doubt Joba would be happy with a demotion, but I'm fairly certain it might help him work on some of the skills it takes to be a starting pitcher, i.e. being efficient with his pitch count and refining his curve and change.

In regards to the second point, it's probably true that stashing Joba in Scranton would result in a lesser pitcher taking his spot in the Major League bullpen. However, due to bullpen chaining, it's not likely to make that much of a difference. That drop off appears even less significant when weighed against the positive benefits it could have on his long term development.

All things considered, Joba starting the year in AAA might be the best case scenario. Hughes winning the job and pitching well while Joba learns some important starting pitcher skills in Scranton might set the Yankees up the best for next year when both Andy Pettitte and Javier Vazquez could potentially be gone.

While most of the mainstream commentary on the 5th starter has focused on the 2010 season alone, I think it's important to focus on how the decisions that are made this Spring factor into the fate of the franchise over the next couple of years. Because you can be sure that's what Brain Cashman is doing.


  1. I agree with pretty much everything you're saying here. The ony thing I'd add is that the Yanks went through too much last year trying to control Joba's innings for them to just stuff him back in the bullpen.

  2. I also agree and would add one note re: Mitre & Gaudin. Claiming that they have a chance at the 5th starter spot not only gives them incentive, but could make other clubs think that the Yanks think highly of them, thus increasing their trade value. I think making the 5th starter slot an "open competition" is just another way for Cashninja to get some value out of his pitching surplus.

  3. I just thank you guys for looking past 2010! I feel like so many people ignore that because of the "win every year" attitude, if you aren't going to help now, what good are you. I hadn't thought about how Joba never really pitched in the minors, so maybe that would be the best place for him!

    I am energized by his great outing today, but definitely agree a lower-level starting position may well help him... definitely more than it would help Hughes.