Saturday, January 15, 2011

Joba to the Rescue?

With Andy Pettitte on the cusp of retirement, and Rafael Soriano holding down the eighth inning duties for at least the 2011 season Mike Axisa of River Avenue Blues poses a very interesting question:  Should the Yankees move Joba Chamberlain back into the rotation? 
"What they don’t have is any decent help for the back of the rotation. Signing Soriano doesn’t help the rotation at all, Sergio Mitre can still stink up the first five innings just as easily as he could have before. Will they take this opportunity to move Joba back to the rotation, turning an absurd contract for a reliever into actual help for the starting staff? I doubt it, and that’s what annoys the crap out of me.
I’m not asking for a miracle here, just give the guy a chance to start again in Spring Training. There’s basically no downside. If he gets hurt and his days as an effective pitcher come to an end, who cares? All the Yankees would be losing is a seventh inning reliever. If it works, well then geez, you’ve got yourself a young big league starter, something the team could really use right about now. It’s Spring Training, just try it. That’s all I’m asking. Just make an effort, give him the same kind of rope they gave Hughes this past year."
He makes an excellent point.  What do the Yankees have to lose?  With Pettitte announcing that he will not start the 2011 season playing baseball, the Yankees are left with a rotation that includes Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre at the four and five spots.  I think it's safe to say that this is not the idea situation for any team that plans on contending during the 2011 season.

Nova, 24, was recently named the number seven prospect in the Yankees system by John Sickels.  While Sickels calls him a "competent fourth starter," I'm not entirely convinced.  His minor league peripherals are underwhelming.  Without a true plus pitch (his fastball flashes plus and his change up could become a plus offering in the future), I don't see any reason to believe that his peripherals will translate any better in the major leagues.  The outlook isn't all bad.  Nova induces a high amount of ground balls, which is a very attractive asset.  Considering his ground ball tendencies, he can probably get by on a strikeout rate around six per nine innings, but he'll have to cut his walk rate by a third in order to be effective long-term.  He's still young, so he still has some time to develop into a bonafide major league starting pitcher.  He may end up being a four, but for the time being, he's probably better suited at the five.

Mitre, 29, is a fringe number five starter that wouldn't crack most major league rotations.  While he consistently produces a ground ball rate above 50%, he tends to struggle due to a low strikeout rate and below average walk rate.  He's very predictable in his pitch selection, and primarily throws his sinking two seam fastball.  Despite his ability to induce ground balls, it's largely ineffective, typically producing negative run values on Fangraph's pitch type value metric.  He's probably best suited to be a long reliever or a AAA arm in waiting on a team like the Yankees.

That brings us back to Joba Chamberlain.  Just a couple of years ago, many scouts and Yankee insiders were touting Joba as a future ace.  With tremendous stuff and great peripherals, it was only a matter of time.  Has his stuff and peripherals matched his ERA performance?  No, but such is the life of a relief pitcher.  ERA fluctuates due to random events and the luck dragon.  During his first 34 starts between 2008 and 2009 (prior to getting jerked around by the Joba Rules), he produced a 3.97 FIP, 8.5 K/9, and 3.84 uIBB/9 line.  While that might be front of the rotation quality at the time, it was certainly more than serviceable.  At the very least, it's a significantly better line than you could expect out of either Nova or Mitre.  In the nine starts afterward, Joba's performance cratered.  This is when the Joba Rules kicked into place.  From that point on, the Yankees jerked him around, varied his rest time in between starts, and put strict pitch counts on each of his starts.  I don't know about you, but I don't know of many pitchers that would pitch well under those types of circumstances.

As Mike pointed out in his article, does it really hurt to give him a chance to start during Spring Training?  Absolutely not.  If he falls flat on his face, the Yankees can always move him back to the bullpen as their seventh inning set-up man.  If he succeeds, the Yankees have a viable option at the four spot for the entire 2011 season.  Will they have to limit his innings?  Yes, but that's not the point.  The point is that they won't have to endure an entire season of watching Sergio Mitre take the ball every fifth day.  Plus, in 2012, they'll have a fully stretched out Chamberlain that might be ready to take the third spot in the rotation, allowing Burnett to move to the four.  There's just too much upside in moving him to the rotation that it baffles me that the Yankee front office doesn't see the benefit.  What do they have to lose?

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