The Yankees' Fifth Starter Competition and Roster Flexibility

GregCorrespondent IMarch 15, 2010

TAMPA, FL - MARCH 5: Pitcher Phil Hughes #65 (middle) of the New York Yankees walks to the dugout before play against the Tampa Bay Rays March 5, 2010 at the George M. Steinbrenner  Field in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

The biggest question regarding the 2010 Yankees right now is undoubtedly who should win the fifth starter job. I have largely stayed away from the topic, since I'm sure you all are sick of hearing the same things over and over again.

So, instead of debating who should win the fifth starter job, I'd like to take a look at what the Yankees need from their fifth starter. You see, fifth starters tend to be pretty fungible. Usually, the difference between a fifth starter and the sixth guy waiting at Triple-A isn't too vast.

In the Yankees case, I think that remains the case. Whether Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, or Alfredo Aceves wins the fifth starter job, the difference in the most likely outcome for each of these three pitchers is probably negligible over the course of a season. What does always matter, though, is roster flexibility.

The Yankees decision with the fifth starter will affect both short-term and long-term roster flexibility. That is the reason why Aceves is not really a serious option to start the season in the rotation. Over the next few seasons, his place on the Yankees roster is as a reliever and spot-starter. He just doesn't have the ceiling that Hughes and Chamberlain do.

Now, I'm sure many of you disagree with my assessment that the three pitchers would put up similar lines going out and throwing 32 starts, and that's fair. I just think that if we're projecting the most likely outcome or the over/under for each pitcher, the three project similarly. They all have strong minor league track records (although Chamberlain and Aceves didn't get too many innings in the minors). They all have been extremely successful as major league relievers, and each have had some success starting for the Yankees.

Because I do believe they would each project similarly as starters, and I think you have to choose the fifth starter based on roster flexibility. Aceves is in the bullpen because building up his innings serves no purpose for the Yankees. Then it comes down to Hughes and Joba. I'm not going to get into the numbers or who I think is better, because that has been done enough.

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What matters is innings. Last season, fans were upset with Chamberlain's innings limits and many even blamed the Yankees "messing around" for his poor second half. That's certainly possible, but I don't think we can definitively say that's the case. What I find interesting is that it seems to be those same fans that want Hughes to be the fifth starter.

Do people not realize that Hughes would be under similar innings constraints? I can't positively say this, but I'm pretty sure that he would be. I'm not sure the Yankees would handle his innings limit the same way they did with Chamberlain last year, but some finagling would need to be done; I don't have any doubts about that.

Chamberlain, on the other hand, is finally free from the so-called "Joba Rules" that really surround every young pitcher. If healthy and successful, the Yankees would realistically let him go out and start 32 games. With Hughes, that wouldn't be the case.

Don't misconstrue this as me thinking that Hughes should be a reliever for the entire 2010 season; I don't. The Yankees should utilize Hughes in a way out of the bullpen where if they had an injury, he would be able to step in as a starter. I feel like the Yankees always made that much more painful with Chamberlain than it needed to be. There are plenty of pitchers who pitch in short relief and are able to transition to the rotation. It seemingly took Chamberlain a month of starts with small pitch increments in order for the Yankees to actually have a regular pitch count.

If they are counting on Hughes to be their sixth starter, as I think they should, they need to do something differently. If that means utilizing Hughes in more multiple inning stints, then that's what they have to do.

Of course, you hope that you don't succumb to any injuries, but that doesn't mean you don't prepare for them. It's nearly inevitable that a starter will go down at some point, and the Yankees need Hughes to be ready to step into the rotation.

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