Cliff Corcoran at Pinstriped Bible, a website with which most Yankee fans are probably familiar, posted a piece last week arguing that the Yankees should give Joba Chamberlain another chance in the starting rotation. The gist of Corcoran’s piece was not so much that Chamberlain would be an ace in the Yankee rotation, but that his pitching as a starter was pretty decent in the past and would likely to be pretty decent in the future. Corcoran also suggested that Chamberlain could be relatively easily replaced were he to leave the bullpen.
Corcoran’s basic point is right, and his bewilderment at why the Yankees are not even considering this option is understandable. However, Corcoran did not devote sufficient attention to just how little the Yankees have to lose by putting Chamberlain back in the rotation. Currently, Chamberlain is slated to compete with David Robertson to replace Kerry Wood as the primary setup man for Mariano Rivera in the Yankee bullpen. It remains possible, however, that the Yankees will acquire another pitcher to replace Wood, thus relegating Chamberlain to being the third or fourth reliever in the bullpen.
If Chamberlain remains in the bullpen, the best case scenario for him will be that he emerges as the setup man pitching, at best between 70-100 innings, mostly during the seventh or eighth inning. He could also, however, be the fourth righty, and fifth pitcher overall, out of the Yankee bullpen, meaning he would pitch something like 50 innings, primarily in low leverage situations. He will most likely end up somewhere in between these two poles.
If, as seems likely, Chamberlain ends up as the third best reliever in the bullpen, he will be filling a not very important role. The third man in the bullpen is generally a tertiary position on a 25 man roster. Obviously, this position is important at times, but it is usually reserved for second tier pitcher, and candidates for this post are not all that difficult to find. The Yankees are far more likely to miss out on the playoffs or get eliminated in the first or second round in 2011 due to having too few starting pitchers than because the third man out of the bullpen is not good enough. In this role, Chamberlain, even if he were to have a good season, would be of relatively limited value, far less than he would be as even a slightly below league average starting pitcher, which seems like the least that could be expected from Chamberlain if he were to start.
The Yankees mishandling of Chamberlain has been extraordinary. Due to a combination of their extreme caution about having him pitch too many innings, failure to give him a consistently defined role and lingering memories of how good he was when he first came up, the Yankees have more or less destroyed Chamberlain the super-prospect. This does not mean he cannot have a productive major league career, but that it is very unlikely he will ever reach the heights that many Yankee fans had hoped he would.
Given this, it seems strange to suggest once again redefining Chamberlain’s role, but the current role for which the Yankees have Chamberlain assigned is simply not important enough to keep even a mildly effective starter out of the rotation, particularly on a team as desperate for starting pitching as the Yankees. Decisions about how to use Chamberlain should no longer be governed by the hope that Chamberlain can someday return to what he was for a few weeks at the end of 2007, because this is very unlikely to happen. Instead, the Yankees should use Chamberlain in the way that most helps them win now; and for 2011 that will be as a starting pitcher.