The debate over Joba Chamberlain's role with the Yankees is clearly the gift that keeps on giving for New York sports fans. We've analyzed and over-analyzed every detail and every opinion and beaten it to death, only to dig it up and beat it further and further to death each and every month since, oh, about October 2007.
Through all of this, though, there is one simple truth that remains, and nobody seems to be paying any attention to it:
Even if the Yankees sign Cliff Lee, they have a serious lack of quality starting pitching depth for 2011 and beyond.
Since 2008, Yankees starters have combined for 42.9 WAR, and CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte have accounted for nearly half of it. Those two have been anchors for the rotation, and the Yankees wouldn't have won the 2009 World Series without them. The bad part about having two dependable starting pitchers, though, is that you're still three short of a full rotation, and since the middle of the last decade, the Yankees have had little lasting success in their efforts to fill those spots. To Brian Cashman's credit, he's made all the right moves on paper since 2008, but the real-life declines of Chien-Ming Wang, Javier Vazquez, and A.J. Burnett have gotten in the way.
Things hit rock-bottom in 2010. Sabathia was solid and Phil Hughes was good, but Pettitte spent nearly half the season on the DL, reminding us all that he's much closer to 40 than 30. Despite winning 95 games on the season, the Yankees sent a replacement-level pitcher to the mound nearly 50% of the time; the quintet of A.J. Burnett, Javier Vazquez, Dustin Moseley, Ivan Nova, and Sergio Mitre combined for 78 starts, 1 WAR, and a 5.27 FIP over 400+ innings.
We know that things rarely go according to plan. Pitchers get injured, or fail to live up to expectations, or decide to retire (see Mike Mussina). We also know that free-agent pitchers are expensive, and often fail to live up to expectations (see A.J. Burnett, Carl Pavano, or Jaret Wright). It's extremely unlikely that five starting pitchers will combine to make 162 starts in a given season, so you need a viable Plan B (and C and perhaps D as well).
What I don't understand is why Joba can't be the Yankees Plan B, C, D, or even Z for that matter.
No doubt he has some issues. The Yankees have handled him inconsistently. As a starter in 2009, he was far too wild, which made it difficult for him to pitch deep into games. His final numbers - a 4.84 FIP and 1.7 WAR in 156.3 innings - were not exactly awe-inspiring, nor did they come close to matching the ridiculous expectations placed on him. However, they were passable. They were decent. They didn't suck horrendously.
Remember last year's rotation? Not sucking horrendously is actually a pretty valuable skill by comparison. Joba may lack the mental fortitude, maturity, guts, heart, demeanor, temperament, and all the other silly nonsensical drivel it supposedly takes to be an effective starting pitcher, but for crying out loud, Sergio Mitre, Chad Gaudin, and Dustin Moseley lack the ability to put up an ERA below 6.00 with any degree of regularity.
I don't care about the bullpen. The Yankees have been able to cobble together effective bullpens from a cast of misfits and no-names over the past 3 seasons. They have not been able to do the same for the rotation. Joba should be a starter, not because he's an ace in waiting, but because he's done it before, because Phil Hughes is coming off a career-high number of innings, because Andy Pettitte can't pitch forever, and because even CC Sabathia or Cliff Lee can get injured. He should be a starter because at this very moment, he's capable of sucking slightly less than A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez did last season. The Yankees need pitching depth, they need a Plan B, and the only place I want to see Moseley, Mitre, or Gaudin don the pinstripes again is in Scranton.
At this point, it's simply about a lack of better alternatives.