Friday, February 5, 2010

Yet Another Joba To The Bullpen Post

Good morning Fackers. As our Spring Training countdown will remind you later on today, it's just twelve more days until pitchers and catchers report. It's been a pretty interesting off-season all things considered, but every year, the flow of transactions and real news invariably slows to a drip. That leaves us prone to rumor and conjecture, and apparently "us" includes "real journalists" as well.

Wednesday, Joel Sherman dipped into the trusty old Joba-to-the-bullpen bag to conjure up a story with a new twist, proposing that the Yankees lean on their on their one through four starters, wave the white flag on the fifth spot, and place both Chamberlain and Hughes in the pen to create a lockdown relief corps.

I was willing to just let it slide for what it was - a baseless hypothetical proposal during the dead days of the off-season - but as with any Joba-to-the-bullpen story it inevitably had legs. Even at that, I was willing to the let the usual arguments - make-up, potential, the eight inning, the succesor to Mo, etc. - play out and let the story die.

But then Dave Pinto put forth an interesting and unorthodox proposal that I thought brought something new to the table: let both pitch out of the bullpen, but utilize them much like pre-LaRussian firemen, pitching multiple innings at a time. Theoretically, not only would it allow both to pitch enough innings in 2010 to leave them well positioned for starting roles in 2011, but it would give the Yankees a highly effective bullpen while allowing them to carry fewer relief pitchers. As a result, they would conceivably be able to have a better bench, whether it be with a third catcher, another utility infielder, a pinch running specialist, etc.

Pinto's proposal intrigued me for a few reasons. Firstly, I like these type of "outside the box" ideas that challenge prevailing roster construction ideas. Secondly, I love any realistic plan that results in an eleven - or even better a ten - man pitching staff. Thirdly, it reminded me of something I proposed two years ago, as to how the Yankees should best deploy Chamberlain for the 2008 season when 40% of the rotation figured to be Hughes and Ian Kennedy and all three had fairly restrictive innings limits.

That said, interesting as Pinto's proposal is, I don't think that 2010 is the time to try it with Chamberlain. The Yankees have handled him very carefully for the past three seasons to have him in the position he is now. He's primed to enter 2010 with no restrictions, capable of being a fully vetted starting pitcher for the entirety of the season. As such, the intrigue and potential fringe benefits of Pinto's proposal aren't enough to punt on the opportunity to just let Joba pitch this year. Yes, he was frustrating to watch for much of last year, but that's typical of any 23 year old pitcher, let alone one who's had Joba's hype and expectations heaped upon him. Let's see what he can do this year before we give up on the Joba starter project.

Hughes, on the other hand, presents a difficult case. Because of the way he was used last year, he will likely have a 2010 innings limit that proves restrictive. It almost assuredly wouldn't permit him to be a starter all season long, and there's no guarantee that there's a rotation spot for him anyway. But, if the Yankees utilize him strictly as a traditional set up man again in 2010, Hughes will be ill-prepared to assume a starting role in 2011. The organization has to find a way to get Hughes an appropriate amount of innings this year, and in his case Pinto's suggestion may have some merit.

In the end, Pinto's proposal won't happen. While I would like an extra position player or two on the bench, Dave Cameron had an excellent look Tuesday as to how filling the fringe of the roster with pitchers rather than position players is probably the better move. Further, in light of the recent extensions signed by Zack Greinke, Josh Johnson, Felix Hernandez, and Justin Verlander, both Rob Abruzzese at Bronx Baseball Daily and Joe Pawlikowski at RAB note the importance of the Yankees developing Chamberlain and Hughes as top flight starters of their own. Pawlikowski further notes that it's unlikely for a contending team like the Yankees to experiment with such a non-traditional technique. And if that's not enough water thrown on the fire, a "high level source" told Baseball Prospectus' Will Carrol there's "no bleeping way" both pitchers wind up in the pen.

Well, that killed two more days of the off-season. Just twelve more until we can move on to real news like who's "in the best shape of his life" and who's been on fire through two dozen at bats against replacement level competition despite years worth of sucking in the Major Leauges. It's not much, but it beats speculating about Joba to the pen or where Damon will land.

*No dead horses were harmed during the writing of this post

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