The 5th starter battle this spring between Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain (and in theory, Alfredo Aceves, Sergio Mitre, and Chad Gaudin) is receiving a lot of attention and one thing I think the situation does highlight is how challenging it can be to develop young starters in New York.
Now, let me first state that this is a great problem to have. But the reality is, because the Yankees are expected to compete for the World Series every single year, it is difficult for them to give young starters the experience they need. In a perfect world, at least for Joba and Hughes, both pitchers would be allowed to make however many starts they needed to reach their innings cap. The Yankees can’t just run both pitchers out there though; they tried that in 2008 with Ian Kennedy and Hughes, to disastrous results. So instead, in comes Javier Vazquez, and the Yankees will have to figure out how to get both pitchers their starts throughout the year and at least one of the two will spend some time in the bullpen.
If you’re a small-market team like the Marlins or the Pirates, you must look at the situation incredulously and say “wait, they have a top of the rotation caliber pitcher and they’re going to make him a reliever?” That’s the funny part of the whole “Joba Bullpen” debate (and the lesser “Hughes Bullpen” debate): there’s no way that debate even exists if Joba or Hughes are pitching for another team. Do you think the Marlins would even toy with the idea of those guys not being starters? Of course not. The Yankees have enough talent that they can get away with it, but of course that doesn’t mean they should do it; much like you probably shouldn’t pay $100 for something that costs $10, even if you can afford it.
Would Zach Grienke have gotten enough innings in NY if he started there? Would he be a middle reliever at this point for the Yankees? Young pitchers generally do not immediately come up and dominate. They need time. Even pitching wunderkind Felix Hernandez had some inconsistency, particularly in his second season.
The Yankees are forced to figure out a way to develop Joba and Hughes – which means allowing them to pitch innings and experience growing pains – while at the same time keep winning.
The big market teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Mets have been accused in the past of using other teams like a farm system, but sometimes when it comes to starters, this is simply the most effective method. Look at how hard it is to juggle the development of 2 young starters. If a high-revenue team is going to invest in a player, starting pitching makes perhaps the most sense, despite the obvious risks involved.
But it’s too expensive, even for big market teams, to acquire starters only through free agency. So in some ways, the Yankees, like the Red Sox are with Clay Buchholz, are creating the model for how to develop starters while still being competitive. Whether or not it will ultimately be effective remains to be seen.