June 8, 2009

Is Joba Chamberlain the next Mariano Rivera?

I have stressed numerous times on this blog that Joba Chamberlain belongs in the rotation.  However, my dad still thinks it is necessary to put Joba in the pen now in order to start grooming him for the eventual replacement of Mariano Rivera.

As much as I hate the idea of Joba leaving the rotation, my dad does bring up a good point about the importance of finding a replacement for Rivera.  Here is his complete position on the Joba debate: (extracted from Johan Santana or Mariano Rivera comments)

If I'm thinking short term, I take Joba as the set-up man and then the Mo replacement when that time comes. I think Mo's about had it and Joba has the MINDSET of a closer. That's not easy to find. It was so exciting watching him blow away people last year. Long term, a starter can take 3-5 years to develop. Look at Sandy Koufax or Randy Johnson, or Pedro for that matter. I guess I'll agree with you and go for the long term, but there will be pains during this year and next as Mo starts to melt down. Maybe Mo can hold the fort for these two years until we get a replacement not named Joba.

He’s definitely right about the long development process for a starter.  It’s rare to see a rookie starter have a huge year, but you might see that same pitcher win the Cy Young five years later.  This applies to Joba and Phil Hughes too.

The way I see it, the Yankees are taking a risk —a good risk, i might add— by putting Joba in the rotation because they know he could be a dominant reliever.  They are just trying to see if he develops into a dominant starter —a much more valuable asset to a team than a closer— that would justify the decision to take a “risk.”

I really do think Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi’s decision to keep him in the rotation is the right move right now, but my dad’s comment worries me about the “time after Mo.”  Rivera is currently signed through the 2010 season, and I am guessing he will retire after that.  Will the Yankees acquire a big name closer, or turn to someone within the organization?

What would happen if…
If the Yankees ever find themselves with a surplus of starters —and are really weak at closer— I think it would be a good idea to insert Joba into the closer role temporarily.  Temporarily meaning like the way the Braves handled John Smoltz.  Smoltz was a solid starter for 12 years, closed for a little over three years, and then moved back to the rotation.  I see Joba as the type that could handle a move like that.  The Yanks could have Joba close for a couple of years until a big-time closer becomes a free agent, and then move Joba back to the rotation.

If Rivera retires tomorrow, I still keep Joba in the rotation because he needs time to see if he can develop into an ace.  If he starts to put up good numbers for a few seasons in a row, I’d say he’s ready (if necessary) to close games for a couple years, and then move back when a replacement is acquired (or developed).

Joba would have no problem converting back to the pen
I have heard some arguments to keep Joba in the rotation saying that he has struggled in the first inning, and would therefore be bad in a one-inning role.  I strongly disagree with that because the mentality for a starter and a closer is completely different.  Joba was practically unhittable when he was in the Yanks bullpen, and there’s no denying that.

Also, I believe he would be able to hit 97+ MPH with his fastball as a reliever because he knows he’s only throwing one (maybe two) innings max.  As a starter, you have to conserve your strength to go deeper into the game.

Just so there’s no confusion, I still believe he should be in the rotation for now, but he would have ZERO problems converting back to the bullpen if given an offseason to prepare.

Importance of a closer
The Yankees have had Rivera for all my years of following the Yankees, so I don’t know what it’s like for my team to be unstable at the end of a tight game (besides the few times he was injured).  But I have seen other teams without a true closer fail miserably, and I think I have an idea of how ugly it could get.

Something to note: a lockdown closer has been a necessity for each of the past five World Series champions.  Here’s a quick rundown:

2008:  Brad Lidge (Phillies)
2007:  Jonathan Papelbon (Red Sox)
2006:  Adam Wainwright (Cardinals)
2005:  Bobby Jenks (White Sox)
2004:  Keith Foulke (Red Sox)

All five of those pitchers were lights out in the postseason, and I guess the quintessential example would be Rivera (got the last out of the ‘98,’99 & ‘00 WS).

Bottom line, when Rivera begins to really melt down (or just retire), the Yankees are going to need to find a replacement.  It’s going to be hard to not want Joba to assume the role, because everyone knows he could be an instant fix to the situation.

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