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The Roundtable of Titans

With rain washing out today’s pertinent spring training action, this seemed like a good time to take stock of the fifth-starter competition with two friends and colleagues, Jay Jaffe of Futility Infielder and Baseball Prospectus and Cliff Corcoran of Bronx Banter.

STEVE: Given that Joba was averaging 91 MPH during Wednesday's start and his velocity was down last year as well, is it possible that we're no longer looking at a potential elite starter or am I jumping to conclusions?

JAY: It's probably a bit early to start worrying about any pitcher approaching maximum velocity at this stage of the spring, but the results (11 runs in 3.2 innings via two appearances) are certainly unsettling. That said, I think we're at the point that every minor variation in what Joba does relative to expectations is under such a microscope that we - by which I mean everyone following the Yankees, not specifically you two - are in danger of losing perspective. It's the Yankees brass that's brought this situation about, and one has to wonder if the uncertainty of Chamberlain's role at this point in time is weighing upon him.

STEVE: You bring up a good point about the Joba-scope, Jay. Still, though we always talk about how it's crazy to make decisions based on small sample-performances in Spring Training, but on the other hand, isn't there a point at which you have to say, "Track record be damned, we need to see this player execute already?" Cliff?

CLIFF: If we're talking about how it should be, I don't think a team should ever say "track record be damned," but I do think your point about needing to see players execute is valid. I think that's Brett Gardner's situation this spring. He enters camp as the most-likely third outfielder, but his Major League track record is short (less than 425 plate appearances), and his thumb injury and Melky Cabrera's better-than-awful performance in center field last year limited him to 15 starts in the second half of 2009. So, Gardner needs to remind JOe Girardi that he can hold down a starting job, that he's more than just a speedy runner. He needs to show what he can do in the field and in terms of getting on base in the first place.

I think Phil Hughes and Chamberlain are in a similar situation except there's only one spot, so what Girardi is looking for (I assume and hope) is execution of pitches, game planning, the ability to set-up hitters, work out of jams, miss bats, avoid hard contact, turn lineups over, etc. This is the one time of year when I agree with those who diminish the importance of statistics. The sample is indeed too small, thus one bad outing, due to the after-effects of the flu or fatigue toward the end of an outing in which the pitcher in question is extending his pitch count, can ruin an ERA. Also, as Girardi has said, the first couple of spring starts are really tune-ups in which starters don't use all of their pitches and are just trying to build arm strength and get a feel for things. So for Hughes and Chamberlain, as well, the charge is to execute in a high-pressure situation, to show what they can do, but I don't think that necessarily means the pitcher with the better ERA is going to get the job. If Joba continues to struggle but suddenly finds it in his last two spring starts and looks like the guy from 2007 again, I think the job will be, and should be, his.

Track record should absolutely play a part in it, however. In a perfect world, the players competing for jobs in camp aren't all starting from zero. Rather, they're demonstrating the skills that allowed them to compile the track record that got them to this spot in the first place. To use an extreme example, based on track record alone, Ron Guidry should be the fifth starter. He's in camp as a special instructor, so he's available and in uniform, but ask him to win the job and you'll realize that he's 59 years old and no longer has those skills. Based on track record alone, Chamberlain should be the fifth starter, because in his 32 major league starts before the team started skipping his turn and limiting his innings late last year, he posted a 3.27 ERA and 8.74 K/9, while Hughes has a 5.22 ERA and 7.1 K/9 in his 28 major league starts.

Joba also has the advantage of being prepared to throw up to 200 innings this season, but he has to prove that his velocity is not an issue, that he can still break off those nasty sliders we saw in 2007 and 2008, that his curve and change are effective major league pitches, that he can mix those four pitches effectively, and that the debates and rules that hounded him over the past two years haven't undermined his confidence on the mound. Jay is right about Joba being under a microscope and there being a loss of perspective about his performance as a starter (I imagine the stat I quoted above will surprise a lot of readers), but Chamberlain also has to prove that he can withstand that concentrated heat without bursting into flames.

JAY: Just to underscore a couple of very good points Cliff made there, it's very important to recognize that while Hughes has had sporadic success as a major league starter, Chamberlain did have a stretch of sustained success in the rotation, and the numbers back that up. Unfortunately, the stretch that's in the forefront of everyone's mind is of him flailing about, putting up a 7.52 ERA while throwing just 46.2 innings over the final two months of last season.

In a way it's not all that dissimilar from what the doubters are saying about the Dodgers' Chad Billingsley, a kid with number one starter potential who was nonetheless so bad in the second half of last year that the team cut him from their postseason rotation. It's easy to forget that before he started dealing with the hamstring problems underlying his second half struggles, the guy did get selected for the All-Star team and struck out 179 hitters after whiffing 201 the year before, because the last impression he made was so unfavorable that it cast doubts in so many minds.

The other thing, as Cliff notes, is that for all of the sturm und drang of Joba's 2009 season, the Yankees have put him in a position to throw 200 innings in 2010, or perhaps just a bit less than that, and that to pull back from that and stick him in the bullpen all year throwing 70 or 80 innings is only going to create similar problems to what they endured in ramping him back up a year from now. It would be a shame to let that opportunity for him to take a full workload go to waste.

CLIFF: And, just to reiterate, that flailing, all of those 46 2/3 innings, came after the Yankees started jerking him around to control his workload. He came out of the All-Star break and dominated in three starts (21 1/3 IP, 8 H, 2 R, 8 BB, 19 K). Then the Yankees skipped his next turn, and he was unable to recapture that feel he had coming out of the break.

STEVE: Pulling the camera back for a second, let’s consider the import of this decision. Very few teams are deep enough to have three quality starters in their rotation. The Yankees, if they get a solid performance from starter #5, are arguably about to be five deep in the rotation. Normally, you might be tempted to say, "Five starters? Okay, see you in October," and go back to your cave until Autumn. It seems, though, that that the Red Sox are about to do the same thing. To me, this is the most compelling aspect of the coming season, the depth of the Red Sox and Yankees rotation. Which has the edge, and how important is it that the Yankees get this No. 5 thing right?

CLIFF: I think the lasting impact of Spring Training decisions tends to be overstated. Brett Gardner and Xavier Nady won the center and right-field jobs last spring. How long did that last? How long did it take for Chien-Ming Wang to create a gaping hole in the Yankee rotation last year? Just because Hughes or Chamberlain isn't in the rotation on April 4 doesn't mean he won't be in it on May 4, and just because one of them is doesn't mean he'll remain there on May 4. During the heyday of the Torre dynasty it seemed the Yankees often had six or more quality starters entering camp, but injuries and poor performance always seemed to sort them out before a tough decision had to be made. Also, I'm not entirely sure the Yankees can choose incorrectly given the quality of their two options. Remember, this is the fifth spot in the rotation. The Yankees got a 6.92 ERA from Wang's spot in the rotation last year and won 103 games. There's a low standard for success here.

As for a comparison to the Red Sox, the Boston rotation projects as Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Clay Buchholz with Tim Wakefield as the alternate. Is that better or worse than Sabathia, Burnett, Vazquez, Pettitte, Joba/Hughes? I think they're pretty similar. Young lefty ace? Check. Fragile ex-Marlin with great stuff? Check. New arrival who has been asked to be an ace in the past? Check. Elite prospect hoping to finally shake the prospect tag? Check. What worries you more, Matsuzaka's conflicts with the team and 2009 injury/conditioning issues or the mileage on Andy Pettitte's elbow? I think there's enough talent in both rotations that fortune will tip the balance.

JAY: More excellent points, Cliff. Too often, I think we get focused on the state of the team as of Opening Day as opposed to appreciating how well they've armed themselves for the six- or seven-month grind ahead. So perhaps the real take-home should be that if you're talking about two quality arms of the caliber of Chamberlain and Hughes as your fifth starter, that's a nice problem to have.

And let's not forget that the Yankees do have some vulnerability in their rotation. Sabathia threw a combined 266.1 innings including the postseason last year, and one of the ESPN stat guys pointed out on the TMI blog, recent history has not been kind to the workhorses of the past several World Series winners. Curt Schilling, Mark Buehrle, Chris Carpenter, Josh Beckett and Cole Hamels all had rough times the following season, and while we like to believe big CC is different, his risk has increased somewhat. And then there's Burnett, who gave them 234.1 innings including the postseason but who's notorious for his fragility, and Pettitte, who's 38; I'll take the under on that trio matching last year's 99 regular season starts, and pitching in a three-man rotation into November, thanks. Plus the fact that if Hughes wins the fifth spot, he'll be on an innings leash... The bottom line is that you can never have too much pitching (unless you're carrying Sergio Mitre, which means you're over-thinking this fifth-starter business) and the Yankees don't.

CLIFF: Exactly, which is why they traded for Javy Vazquez, one of the most reliable innings eaters in baseball, and forced Joba and Hughes to compete rather than automatically slotting them both in the rotation with only Mitre, Gaudin, Aceves, and minor leaguers yet to make their Major League debut as backup.

STEVE: I have one (predictable) disagreement here, which is that using Mitre would be under-thinking, not over-thinking, in that there is a whole other issue at work here, which is that if the Yankees want to avoid returning to the days of buying day-old sushi free agents like Carl Pavano, they have to establish at least one real prospect in the rotation this season. Heck, I’m tempted to argue that they would be better off establishingboth Joba and Hughes in the rotation, but Jay is probably right that injuries will probably solve that problem at some point this season, though if the Yankees cling to the idea that a pitcher cannot be "stretched out," it could be a wasted year for one of the two. That, though, is an argument for our next roundtable.

Wholesome Reading has been updated with new stuff and will continue to be throughout the weekend (warning, kids: politics!). Have a good one and I’ll be back Monday unless there be breaking news, like Joba being traded for a Filet o’ Fish sandwich.