If Joba Is Backup Closer, Then Let Him Set Up

According to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, Joba Chamberlain would switch back to the bullpen if something happened to Mariano Rivera and the Yankees needed a closer.

That seems obvious, considering how Chamberlain electrified New York as a setup man down the stretch in 2007.

But it once again brings up the biggest debate in the Bronx: should Chamberlain be a starter or reliever?

The answer here, in contrast to the top-to-bottom party line from Yankees management, is relief.

I understand the arguments for starting Chamberlain. He has four quality pitches -- his fastball, slider and curve are above-average, and his changeup is decent -- which is the makings of a top-of-the-rotation repertoire. Pitchers who throw 98 mph with three complementary pitches are hard to find.

The other argument for starting is that it gets more innings out of Chamberlain than in relief. Also a valid point.

But poll the Yankees' clubhouse, and I bet it comes out in favor of Chamberlain as a setup man. Yet, my reason for saying he should be in the bullpen isn't about the shortening-the-game thing, which hearkens back to the days of Rivera and John Wetteland.

No, the issue here is Chamberlain's health. Two scouts, in separate conversations with me, made the case that Chamberlain should be a reliever and using the same gesture -- thumb and forefinger about 3 inches apart -- said that going into the draft Chamberlain had "a medical (file) this thick." Issues with his knees and triceps at Nebraska caused Chamberlain to fall from a possible top-10 pick in 2006 to a supplemental first-rounder.

And while the Yankees have been as careful as possible with Joba -- they won't let him increase his workload by more than about 30 innings per year, and that strict limit meant they wouldn't let him start to begin last season -- they couldn't avoid injury. He missed about a month last season with a sore bicep; it cropped up in his 12th start after he transitioned from relief.

So it seems to me that the best way to keep Chamberlain healthy is in the bullpen, where he won't have to pace himself. He might not use his curve and changeup as much, and he won't throw as many innings, but they'll be key innings. It's better than not pitching at all while on the DL.

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