Joba Chamberlain: Starter or Reliever?

Ira LiemanContributor IApril 12, 2009

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 19:  (EDITOR'S NOTE: IMAGES HAVE BEEN DIGITALLY DESATURATED) Joba Chamberlain #62 of the New York Yankees poses during Photo Day on February 19, 2009 at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

As a young New York Yankee with a very interesting back-story, Joba Chamberlain has been hyped by many as the most exciting young pitcher in the entire major leagues.

He had jumped from the Florida State League to Yankee Stadium in his first professional season, and based on the number of Chamberlain t-shirts in New York, some fans seem to be already fitting him for a Hall of Fame plaque at age 23.

On the event of his first start of 2009, we should ask this question: Is Joba Chamberlain better suited to be a starter or a reliever?

Chamberlain's talents appear to be bountiful. He has a fantastic curveball and slider to go along with a fastball that touches the upper 90s. To protect their investment, the Yankees had come up with "Joba Rules" used to govern the use of the pitcher. This included providing him with rest (in days) equal to the number of innings he pitched in an outing.

The Yankees' stated plan was to have him as a starter, but Chamberlain started the 2008 season as a reliever, posting a 2.28 ERA in 20 outings through the end of May.

However, as a starter in 12 games, he also pitched effectively, posting a 1.306 WHIP.

After coming back from an injury in August, Joba returned as a reliever for another 10 appearances.

In 124 and one-third major league innings, he has struck out 152—a great ratio for any pitcher. Yet he has had injuries in both his college and professional careers. Because of this, the Yankees are handling him with kid gloves but insisting he will start as well.

So, enough about Joba, what about the starting rotation?

At the moment, the Yankees have spent tons of money reloading their starting rotation with CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. Along with Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte, the starting rotation seems to be pretty stable.

The big questions seem to be in the bullpen. Future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera turns 40 after the 2009 season, and although he posted arguably the best statistical season of his career last year, one wonders how much longer he will be able to keep up this level of play.

Another bullpen concern is the eighth inning. A rag-tag group of retread middle relievers has no clear standout, and nobody other than Chamberlain was able to distinguish themselves last year either (making Rivera's season that much more amazing).

We might forget in 2009 that Mariano Rivera warmed John Wetteland's chair as a setup man in 1996 after starting 10 games in 1995, his rookie year. Rivera pitched over 100 innings with a WHIP of under 1.000 and posting a Chamberlain-esque 10.9 K's per nine innings. Rivera actually placed third in AL Cy Young voting in 1996, behind winner Pat Hentgen and teammate Andy Pettitte.

Can we compare a young Joba Chamberlain to one of the best closers of all time?

Not too closely, but we do know this—both pitchers have high strikeout ratios and both were starters in the minors.

However, Joba has already had tendinitis in his rotator cuff, and it is easy to find parallels to Kerry Wood's injury-plagued career as a starter.

Joba Chamberlain should be the Yankees' closer in waiting.

With big game experience and "plus-plus" stuff, he could be a decent starter. However, his track record doesn't show durability. He will likely be a game-changing setup man, blowing away hitters with a fresh fastball in the eighth inning after the Yankees' starters begin to tire.

When Mariano Rivera took over the closer's role for the Yankees, he was 27 years old, or four years older than Joba Chamberlain is today. He also had significantly more professional experience.

Joba could learn from Mariano in an "on-the-job training" position. And he could even save the Yankees some money in the long run when he hits his arbitration year as a setup man rather than a starting pitcher.

Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi should take the short road and groom Joba Chamberlain to be the next great Yankees closer.