Joba Answers the Call, Raises New Questions

Strong outing quiets some concerns

By Josh Alper
|  Thursday, Mar 18, 2010  |  Updated 12:01 PM EDT
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Joba Answers the Call, Raises New Questions

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The Yankees couldn't have asked for much more out of Joba Chamberlain on Wednesday afternoon.

He pitched three strong innings against the Phillies, kept the fight alive for the fifth spot in the rotation and allowed everyone to enjoy a St. Patrick's Day free of worry about the Yankee pitching staff.

Three good innings hardly settles the issue in Chamberlain's favor, but it's been fairly clear that he's not just another horse in this race. After all, you don't get the manager and pitching coach saying it was time to put up or shut up before Chad Gaudin takes the hill. The Yankees spent three years preparing Chamberlain for the day when he was going to be a starting pitcher without restriction or limitation. That day is here so long as Joba doesn't spit the bit. 

That was always the backdrop for this competition. No one expected that a few Spring Training outings were going to be the entire evaluation process and there was no ancillary factor that loomed as large as Joba's handling. He was painstakingly groomed as a starter and it's hard not to take into account the resulting disappointment if that never came to fruition. He had to earn it, of course, but Joba's spot in the competition has never been quite the same as Alfredo Aceves or Phil Hughes. 

Some have argued that the whole thing doesn't wind up meaning anything in the long run anyway. If Hughes were to get the fifth starter spot to start the season, he would be on the same kind of usage restrictions familiar to Chamberlain and that would mean Joba would eventually find his way into the rotation. Perhaps -- or perhaps putting Chamberlain into the bullpen and watching him blow people away for three months makes it much harder to break what doesn't need fixing. 

Yanking Chamberlain to and fro hasn't been all that successful in the past and, as Dave Eiland and Joe Girardi suggested, the time has come for him to just pitch in whatever role he's given. Spot starter isn't likely to be that role, though. 

Could that mean Hughes starts the season in the minors? It might not be the huge step down that it would appear to be. Hughes's move to the bullpen last season left him working with a limited arsenal of pitches and working his other stuff back into the mix might be easier against AAA hitters than big leaguers. Chances are pretty good that the Yankees are going to need a replacement for one of the first five because of injury at some point and they'd have Hughes ready to go without a break in his routine. 

Even if that doesn't happen, Hughes could join the team late in the season and postseason as a skilled arm out of the pen without doing any harm to the plan of having him ready for a full workload in the 2011 season. That's not insignificant. With Andy Pettitte year-to-year at this point and Javier Vazquez in the last year of his contract, the Yankees are going to want to have Chamberlain and Hughes in the rotation next year.

When one door opens, another one closes. Or opens. It's a bit confusing, but that's the Yankees rotation for you.

Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City and is a contributor to FanHouse.com and ProFootballTalk.com in addition to his duties for NBCNewYork.com.

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