Benjamin Kabak‘s typically strong post at RAB on Joba Chamberlain and the to-start-or-relieve conundrum, which addresses a John Harper piece at The New York Daily News, spurred some thinking about a couple aspects of the fifth-starter race. I think Kabak did a very good job analyzing that Harper’s article didn’t prove his own point–that the Yankees are considering moving Joba to the bullpen. That isn’t to say that they aren’t, but rather that Harper’s quotes of pitching coach Dave Eiland didn’t substantiate that. This is, after all, an open competition that Joba may well win.
At the same time, there is an aspect of the upcoming competition for the fifth starter spot that has largely been unaddressed, yet to me may be crucial to how the Yankees deal with the aftermath of the fifth starter competition. It harks back to what I’ve said in the past about Joba and Phil Hughes, their youth, how the Yankees handle them, but also relates to managing. That is, the outcome of the contest between the two young pitchers will likely require as much direction and finessing for the pitcher who doesn’t begin the season starting as it will for the pitcher who does.
That I consciously avoided using the terms “winner” and “loser” thus far is pertinent, for I believe the Yankees should adopt a similar approach. The pitcher likely moved to the bullpen will need to hear from Joe Girardi, Eiland, and Brian Cashman that he still plays a vital role in the team’s fortunes and its future, at the same time that he realizes from the outcome that he needs to do more to become a full-time starter for the defending World Series champions. This two-pronged approach served the Yankees well last year, for it was similar to how they handled Melky Cabrera after he lost the competition to be the starting center fielder to Brett Gardner. This prompted Melky to redouble his efforts and, when he got the chance to play, regained the CF job for the rest of the season. Girardi handled the situation well by complimenting both players, indicating their importance to the team, and signaling that, when Gardner was initially chosen, he would not need to look over his shoulder for the situation would not be “day by day.”
I believe they need to handle the fifth starter competition as diplomatically, if not more so. Both pitchers have been labeled for some time not just starters but future stars, shouldering high expectations from the organization and fans alike. They have shown some mental toughness with their vast talent, especially when setting up. The Yankees need to ensure that whoever (presumably) moves to the bullpen is mentally ready to do important work and gets over the blow of losing the competition. They need to remember, as do fans, that the pitchers are still young–Joba turns 25 in September, Hughes 24 in June. They need time to mature and, for one of these pitchers, their maturity as a starter may be delayed for a time at the same time that their mental maturity will be tested.
In the last few days, a phrase has turned over and over in my mind–we ask a lot of athletes, often things we would not ask of ourselves. It isn’t to say that we necessarily shouldn’t, or that part of being a top-notch athlete shouldn’t involve facing challenges. I am also not saying that there isn’t some real value in this impending competition, for Joba and Hughes both see the seriousness and stakes of this and are proceeding accordingly, which is encouraging to see. However, we as fans at times demand that athletes act in a way that we would find difficult. For whoever isn’t the fifth starter, many fans will likely insist that the loser keep a stiff upper lip, shrug off the setback, and embrace a different but still crucial role on the team. For those who might downplay the significance of this, consider how we might react if we were subjected to a competition for jobs we already had or had prepared long and hard for, then lost and were in essence demoted. If a bit older, think also about how we might have reacted if faced with such a scenario in our early to mid-20s, if we would react to the outcome as well as one of these young, highly touted athletes probably will after one of them comes up short in a very public competition for the fifth spot–and, not to be overlooked, probably being billed as the most talented young pitcher in the organization as a result.
The Yankees will need to manage the outcome of the competition as judiciously as they have the youngsters’ careers to this point.