Some Thoughts on the Fifth Starter Competition

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.

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10 Responses to Some Thoughts on the Fifth Starter Competition

  1. That's a very good question, Mark. I clearly presumed that the Yankees would hold onto the "loser," but you're right to wonder if it will be a pretense to deal one. I sure hope not, having advocated keeping them, or only trading one if it didn't involve giving away the farm system. The scenarios you mention are not exactly far-fetched, either.

  2. Mark says:

    Excellent summation. I would also ask whether the potential for a negative reaction by either ‘losing’ pitcher could be the excuse the Yanks need to trade for any missing pieces come July. I personally hope not but it’s another option that hasn’t been mentioned much or at all. I get 2010 FA will be the biggest attraction but if the LF experiment doesn’t work or Swisher has a down year and one or two get injured I honestly think either could be used as trade bait to help shore up the 2010 Yankees for another WS run. Any thoughts?

    • I think it would be possible, but there would have to be a significant injury and the Yankees would still expect something substantial in return. I honestly think that Hughes and Joba are about as untouchable as young players in the Yankees system can get. But anything is possible – all I’m saying is they’d be getting a pretty good outfielder. David Dejesus wouldn’t even be enough.

  3. Lefty says:

    Great critique and subsequent observations. The competition for the 5th. starter also likely includes, Aceves, Mitre & Gaudin, and one of them could become #5. The mindset for a reliever is different than that of a starter. These are young men, and to some degree are influenced by their perception of what others think. No one is in their heads like they themselves are. For all that's known, Joba may verbalize desires of being a starter, but deep down inside he may really feel & know his future is as a closer. If this is so, and Hughes gets the nod for #5, Joba will feel comfortable & in his niche. Who knows, after Hughes' success in '09 he may feel better and more confident in the relief role as well. Possibly it would be a good thing if Aceves, for example, takes charge and earns the job as #5. It would give Girardi a lot of flexibility plus a dynamite pen. This spring training will have to boil the issue out, but no matter what, these players have experienced the feeling of winning the big ring and know what it takes to get there. They will realize their roles, and that is what they will be committed to. So don't expect a lot of pantie waste whining from either of them, and if there is any, Girardi and senior team members will handle it.

  4. Edgar says:

    And “the oscar goes” to instead of “And the winner is”

  5. I can pretty much promise you that without an injury there is no chance Mitre, Gaudin, or Aceves with the 5th starter job.

    As far as having a dynamite bullpen, a good year by Aceves and Robertson would go far towards that. If Melancon blossoms that would be huge as well.

  6. smurfy says:

    I have hopes for Marte as well, and if Gaudin can model himself after Aceves' approach, we will possess the type of trading chips that lets us deal from strength.

  7. Lefty says:

    Rob & Smurfy, you’re reading my mind.

  8. Mark says:

    I’d have to agree with Rob, it really would take something very special and an injury for Joba or Hughes to not be the 5th starter in 2010. In a way it just makes the whole of next season even more exciting. Smurfy raises a good point that we would be trading from strength; instead of having to empty the farm we can use one or two proven ML’s to get what we may potentially need. Personally I see Joba ‘winning’ the 5th starter but ending up in the ‘pen and Hughes emerging as the better starter long term. Either way I really hope they can become integral members of the Yanks however they contribute.

  9. Same here about Aceves, Gaudin, on down, which is primarily why I wrote the post focused on Joba and Hughes. I think they’re clearly the top two options, and the Yankees see them as such now and in the future.

    I also think that, especially depending upon what occurs with Pettite (1-year deal) and Vazquez (contract expires) after 2010, the Yankees may well want and need Joba and Hughes in the rotation. Now, I’m not wishing Pettite and Vazquez away by any means, for Pettite clinched all three playoff series in ’09 at age 37, and Vazquez has shown very good stuff, maturity, durability, and efficiency in the last several seasons. Yet Joba and Hughes have been groomed to start long term, and I agree with that.

    On the depth overall, I have the feeling that Gaudin will stick around, likely in a long relief/swing man role. I think he did a decent job for the Yankees last year in at times unpredictable work, and gives them options. Plus (and I say this with the issue of workloads in mind given my post on C.C. but in mind overall), the Yankees cannot have too much pitching depth. ’08 is a prime example of this. Wang and Joba went down, Hughes and Ian Kennedy struggled then went down with injuries, and Pettite was pitching with a bad shoulder for the last few weeks. The Yankees really, REALLY, do not want to return to the days of Sidney Ponson and Darrell Rasner. As I’ve blogged on the ’09 rotation, durability and also depth had much to do with their success and with their predecessors. I sure hope long-term injuries don’t surface in ’10, but if they do, the Yankees would be better served holding onto their starters and not subjecting them, or us, to Igawa and inexperienced youngsters who aren’t ready. Unless it is absolutely necessary to make a good deal, keep the depth.

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