Spring Training Baseball doesn't so much focus on the competition between teams as it focuses on the competitions within teams. It is common to see battles for starting positions during Spring, or battles between which starting position player is awarded which spot. While this is the norm amongst all 30 MLB clubs, there was perhaps no competition that received as much attention as that concerning who would fill the 5th starter role for the defending World Champion Yankees.
At the commencement of Spring Training, there were five contenders for the final spot in the rotation. Alfredo Aceves, Sergio Mitre, and Chad Gaudin all had the opportunity to showcase their stuff and make their arguments that they deserved the spot. However there was much speculation that, realistically, the battle was between Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. Yankees Manager Joe Girardi gave each pitcher several starts as well as pulling them from the pen in some instances to witness how their stuff translates from 4-day preparation versus being called upon from the bullpen at a moment's notice.
Today Girardi named 23 year-old Phil Hughes as the man to fill the 5th starter role. Joba is said to be the 8th inning setup guy to ultimately hand the ball to Rivera in the 9th. All of this transpired in addition to the Yanks releasing Chad Gaudin unconditionally, meaning they will owe him 25% of his $2.95 million salary and affording him the option to sign with any other club, though he wholeheartedly regretted his time with the Yankees coming to an end after enjoying a successful stint with them for half of the 2009 season.
The decision is the result of a 3-year grooming period the Yanks spent on Joba when he debuted in 2007 and was regarded as among the elite bullpen guys in baseball. The Yankees have spent the past three years building up Joba's arm and innings in an attempt to shape him as the franchise's homegrown starter. It was clear he had the stuff to pitch, but as I reported in earlier articles, perhaps not the mindset. Both he and Hughes were given multiple starting opportunities as well as instances when they pitched in relief. Chamberlain was revered for his late inning, clutch strikeout heroics, but where he faltered, Hughes excelled.
Through 2008 and 2009 starts, Joba struggled to get through as far as the 4th inning. It was evident to all that Chamberlain thrived on the edge-of-you-seat, nail-bitting situations with a loud crowd and the opponents threatening to rally for him to showcase his 95+ sometimes 100+ MPH stuff, get the strikeout call, and cap it with an aggressive, emotional fist-pump as he walked back to the dugout.
The starting position that was awarded to Phil Hughes is better suited for a conservative, patient pitcher who does not wear his emotions on his shoulder and doesn't mind holding his best stuff for later. Hughes meets these criteria to the letter and so I feel the organization made the correct call in naming Hughes their 5th starter.
Though he is set to be the last man before Mo', Joba will lead the charge, representing the heart and soul of the bullpen accompanied by Damaso Marte, Chan Ho Park, and Dave Robertson. Veteran Chan Ho Park signed with the Yankees after serving with the 2009 Phillies while Robertson and Marte showcased their stuff during2010 Spring Training as well as recording crucial outs throughout the 2009 regular season and postseason.
As for the remaining two contenders, Aceves and Mitre still have to make their cases for relief positions in the bullpen as management is required to cut teams to a 25-man roster to begin the season.
The only other competition within Yankee camp was between Brett Gardner and new Yankee Curtis Granderson. Granderson officially won the position of Center Field leaving Left Field to Gardner. The players have done everything they set out to accomplish during Spring Training, so far as the Yankee club goes. While other teams currently deal with multiple injuries to key players, all the Yankee players are taxed with is remaining healthy and fine-tuning their mechanics concerning issues such as fielding, swinging the bat, or pitching. All is left up to management to aid the players concerning these matters and give them a different perspective. Girardi still has yet to finalize the batting order for Opening Night when they will face the Red Sox in Boston (April 4th).
Many teams will tell you that they wish they were plagued with relatively trivial issues such as these and with Opening Day a mere 10 days away (April 5th) time is in high demand, though every club will tell you it is certainly not in supply.