Say what you want about George Steinbrenner and his management style, but I guarantee that the Joba Chamberlain debacle would not have happened under his watch.
The word came down today that Phil Hughes has won the fifth starter spot over Joba. It's the right decision–I'm not arguing that. The problem is that the Yankees have spent the last three years messing with Joba's head and because of it, he may very well end up needing a one-way ticket out of the Bronx to get his career back on track.
Chamberlain had amazing stuff in 2007. He was a bonafide phenom, much the same way that K-Rod was in 2002 with the Angels. Hitters were baffled, the fan base was re-energized and Joba was an instant celebrity.
Whereas the Angels found a clear-cut path for K-Rod, the Yankees fiddled with Joba. Hank Steinbrenner stuck his big fat head into the baseball operations side and set Chamberlain down a path of despair.
The minute the Yankees realized they couldn't stretch Joba out to six innings, it should have been a moot point. It was for the Red Sox in 2007 when Papelbon was being groomed for the rotation. Granted, the decision was more of a no-brainer–the Sox didn't have a Mariano in place as closer. But nonetheless, the Sox picked a direction and went with it.
Joba's 2008 arm troubles should have been a slam-you-in-the-face wake up call to change strategies. The problem is that Joba was too great of a publicity asset to Hank and Co. to make him a middle reliever. The Yanks needed arms pre-C.C. and A.J. and Chamberlain was a cheap alternative. I get it.
I love Brian Cashman as a person, but he should have stepped in early in 2009 when it was clear that Joba's arm couldn't handle starting–he barely averaged five innings in his 157.1 innings pitched last year. It was clear to even the most pig-headed fan by May.
So how is George the brainiac here? Back in 1996, the Yankees had a similar crossroads decision to make with Mariano Rivera. Steinbrenner listened to his baseball people, Rivera set up John Wetteland to form arguably the greatest 8th-and-9th-inning combo in baseball history. Then Rivera assumed the closer role in 1997.
This may have even been salvageable this spring. Start Joba as a reliever. Take starting off the table. The very fact that even with Wang gone that he was a fifth starter candidate at best should have been the end of the discussion.
By dangling the fruit out there once more, the Yanks messed with Joba's head one too many times. It's truly sad. He could have been a top-tier closer with a lot more patience.
Mariano's continued dominance created this purgatory and there's no arguing that the Yanks made the right decision by resigning Rivera. So why not just have Joba as the seventh and eighth inning guy a la 1996 until Rivera retires?
Let's keep this in perspective. Joba's going to be 25 in September. His career ERA is 3.61. There's still plenty of life in the arm.
Ironically, the Yanks took the exact approach with Hughes that they should have taken with Joba by letting him be a dominant middle reliever until the time if and when he proved he had the stuff to make the jump to the rotation.
Joba never proved it. Hank Steinbrenner forced the issue and as a result, one of the best homegrown arms in the Yankees system in 20 years might end up having his best days after a trade-deadline deal to Oakland or Miami.