A fastball consistently in the upper 90s, a slider that makes even the best hitters look like little leaguers, and an intensity on the mound that has all of New York buzzing. With all of that and more, Joba Chamberlain is undoubtedly a special pitcher.
However, the question is how should the Yankees utilize his talent? Recently, Yankees co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner, made it very clear where he stands on the issue.
Let's look at the positives and negatives for each possible place in the pitching staff for Chamberlain, in the long term and short term.
Chamberlain was drafted as a starter, and that's all he ever was until the Yankees brought him up as a reliever late last season. He showed dominance in the minor leagues as a starter (9-2, 2.45 ERA in 88.1 IP).
Of course, most teams would also prefer to get 180-200 innings from one of their best pitchers as opposed to 60-80 innings.
On the other hand, at 22 years old, Joba Chamberlain still has a bright future ahead of him. But it's a future that could easily be wasted if he ends up with arm problems.
Studies have shown that young pitchers should have an increase of no more than 30 IP per year. Between the minors and majors last year, he pitched 112.1 innings. Certainly full-time starter was not in the cards this year.
Additionally, Joba has not made a start since August of last year and would need a handful of starts back in the minors to stretch his arm back out to pitching six or seven innings as opposed to one or two.
This process could (and should) take almost a full month. Certainly in that month the Yankees would be hurting by having Joba in neither the rotation nor the bullpen. He needs an offseason to fully and properly build his arm back up to starter status.
This is Chamberlain's current role, but most would say it is an unimportant role. However, consider this—of the last six World Series participants all but one (2006 Cardinals) had a reliever other than their closer that pitched over 60 innings and had a sub—2.50 ERA.
With starters all over the major leagues (especially in the Yankees this year) failing to get deep into games, the bullpen leading up to the closer has become increasingly important.
Despite the emergence of Brian Bruney and the supposed talent of Kyle Farnsworth and LaTroy Hawkins (their contracts indicate they should be good, but no Yankees fan has ever actually witnessed that), Chamberlain is easily their best option leading up to Mariano Rivera.
Although the set-up role is becoming more and more important in baseball, it is still not as important within the bullpen as the closer and doesn't pitch half as much as starters.
One can easily argue Chamberlain in the set-up role is taking one of their most talented pitchers in one of the less important roles.
There is one simple reason why Joba Chamberlain won't become the Yankees’ closer anytime soon—Mariano Rivera.
Rivera is arguably the greatest closer of all time and just signed a three-year contract this past offseason. So the Yankees’ closer role is taken for the foreseeable future.
Although Rivera has the role locked down for the next three years, at least, that does not mean the Yankees should not consider Chamberlain for the role at some point.
Good closers are hard to come by from outside the organization. Last season, seven closers had 40-plus saves and a sub-3.00 ERA. Of those seven, only one did not make his major league debut with a different team.
And it is apparent to anyone who has watched Chamberlain pitch that he could be an excellent closer. His high-90s fastball and plus slider are reminiscent of Rivera's fastball and closer in 1996.
He appears to have the mental make-up to handle the ninth inning.
Due to the logistics of moving back to the rotations and Mariano Rivera's hold on the closer position, Joba Chamberlain's role for the rest of the year must be the eighth inning set-up role, no matter what Hank Steinbrenner says.
After this season, the Yankees will need to examine the development of Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy to see if the rotation needs an additional talented youngster. They will also see how Mariano Rivera's 38-year-old arm holds up through his 14th season.
After a season in the bullpen, Joba will have avoided a strenuous mid-season transition to starting. The Yankees will have a better sense of their needs as a team so they can act accordingly going into next offseason.