There are those who believe the entire notion of having a set fifth starter for a rotation is a foolish one. It's an idea with some merit, although what would we have had to talk about during Yankees Spring Training if it actually came to fruition?
Joe Girardi says that he'll be making his choice about the final member of the team's rotation by Thursday. If you believe a flotilla of tweets, articles and musings wafting up from Tampa, however, the choice has been made and it is Phil Hughes. Hughes pitched fairly well against the Phillies on Monday, although he allowed three home runs on a day when the wind was blowing out with gusto, while Joba Chamberlain was relegated to an intrasquad game against Yankee backups and minor leaguers.
He pitched well enough, but Girardi was effusive in praise for Hughes's performance. In a competition that's been harder to figure out than the plot of "Lost" at times, that's the closest thing to a clear sign that we've ever seen about the manager's thoughts on the matter. Hughes was supposed to be a fixture in the rotation by this point, of course, so it's not shocking to see him rise to this spot. It's still a bit surprising, though.
Chamberlain has been painstakingly groomed for this role since he arrived on scene as a bullpen savior late in 2007, an arrival that probably has as much to do with his current state of affairs as any actual performance. If he and Hughes had both been rookies in the 2008 rotation, after all, every mediocre start wouldn't have been followed by the chorus of voices urging the Yankees to return Joba to the pen where he'd serve as Mariano's heir apparent. As much as the Yankees have said these decisions are about performance, it's been impossible to remove the politics.
As a case in point, we offer the likely resolution if Hughes indeed wins the starter job. Chamberlain will go to the bullpen to help protect late leads and/or wait for a starter to go down with injury. If the latter occurs, the Yankees will then need to find a replacement for Chamberlain in the pen as well as deal with stretching his arm back out and assorted other fun that we've grown accustomed to over the last few years. That's hardly an ideal situation, even if it is true to the idea that Chamberlain is still viewed as a starting pitcher.
It seems so much easier, so much more logical, to have Chamberlain (or, better yet, the innings-limited Hughes) as a starter in AAA to preserve both the flexibility of the big league staff and his own preparation as a starting pitcher than to have one of them in the bullpen. That would be the solution which holds the most potential benefit for both player and team, but it would also eliminate the political from the equation and that's just not happening.
In the end, it's a pretty nice position to be in where these are the biggest worries facing the Yankees. As much as all of us like to obsess on these questions, what really matters is that the Yankees are loaded with talent once again and they aren't likely to be made or broken by the back end of their rotation.