The Joba Rules, Revisited

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Yesterday we posed the question of whether Phil Hughes was the new Joba Chamberlain in that, like Joba, he’s been dominant enough in the eighth inning to spark a debate over whether he’s more valuable in the bullpen or the rotation. But before we anoint a new Joba once and for all, let’s not forget that some form of the original Chamberlain’s Joba Rules are still in effect — except this time the Yankees are keeping their plans to themselves.

Here’s their conundrum: Joba’s still only 23, and the Yankees have internally set a maximum number of innings for 2009, based on the theory that young pitchers shouldn’t increase their workload too much from year to year. Joba’s previous professional career high was 2007, when he threw 112.1 total innings. The Post says that the Yankees had decided prior to spring training that he’d be limited to 140 innings this year, though the News suggests the number might be closer to 160. Either way, even despite his inability to go deep into starts consistently, he’s already thrown 95.2 innings going into tonight’s start against the A’s and is on pace to throw considerably more than either of those figures.

So what to do? Times beat writer Tyler Kepner says the Yankees expect to keep Chamberlain in the rotation through the end of the regular season, something they’d presumably accomplish by using their remaining off days to skip his start whenever possible. (Kepner also argues that Chamberlain will be back in the bullpen come playoff time.) The Post, meanwhile, suggests either Phil Hughes or Alfredo Aceves could be added to the rotation, though that seems unlikely for multiple reasons, not the least of which is that Brian Cashman talked of the “consequences” of making them both relievers, which presumably refers to the fact that the club lost the ability to start either of them. (The Yankees won’t reveal their plans, except to say they haven’t changed since spring training.)

We tend to agree with Kepner, but only to a point. Whether you think Joba is more valuable as a starter or reliever in the long run, he’s certainly more valuable as a starter right now, because the eighth inning is already covered. We’re in the camp that thinks he should be a starter anyway, so doing whatever is necessary to keep him in the rotation is the right move. Here, though, is where we differ from Kepner. It doesn’t make sense to maneuver to keep Joba in the rotation through the regular season and then put him back in the bullpen come October.

The argument that a bullpen including Mariano Rivera, Hughes, and Chamberlain would be incomparable is true, but that’s just overkill. (Why not just throw CC Sabathia in the bullpen, too? It’d be unstoppable!) Besides, their four-man playoff rotation would then need to include either Sergio Mitre, or — gasp! — the likes of Kei Igawa. (We’re working on the assumption that Chien-Ming Wang won’t be an option, be it because of injury or because he can’t get anyone out.) Even if they need to skip Joba more frequently later in the season, we’d rather have Igawa (or someone similarly unreliable) making a spot start or two in August, rather than scrambling to find a starter come October. After all, a great bullpen is useless if you don’t have a lead to protect.