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Losing Joba creates fireman shortage

6/10/2011

The glum news that Joba Chamberlain is likely out for the year with a torn ligament in his elbow adds injury to insult in the bad-news Bombers' bullpen. They already had lost Pedro Feliciano until July and are still without Rafael Soriano for more than a month. As much as the latter signing drew fire for being a decision made against GM Brian Cashman’s judgment, by the time July rolls around, with Chamberlain on the shelf, they now may well be glad to have him back.

Chamberlain had been extremely effective this season setting up Mariano Rivera. He generally got full frames in the seventh and eighth innings, and usually, but not always, pitched to protect a lead.

It was a structured role in which he was not coming into many messy situations with other people’s runners on base. Consistent with last year’s usage, Girardi sent him into a game to clean up somebody else’s mess just six times this season. But even in those pressure situations, Chamberlain nevertheless delivered, stranding eight of 10 inherited runners, or coming out of those situations with zero runs four times out of six. Last year, Chamberlain put up zeroes in 17 of 23 inherited-runner situations.

With Chamberlain out of the picture and Soriano and Feliciano still on the DL, it will be interesting to see how Girardi runs his non-Mo relievers in the meantime. The team’s relief fireman this year has been David Robertson, as he’s come into 14 games already with men on base. He's generally been used in situations earlier than the seventh or eighth inning. Will Girardi want to push back Robertson and situational lefty Boone Logan into the later innings to cover for the DL trio? That might risk trusting those tough midgame assignments to the likes of Luis Ayala or Lance Pendleton or Amauri Sanit.

Do the Yankees have ready alternatives? Sure, Scranton’s hard-throwing closer, Kevin Whelan, has 30 K’s against 23 baserunners in 27 IP while notching 18 saves in 21 opportunities. But the additional complication is that they might be unwilling or unable to cram Whelan onto a 40-man roster that already has two players on the 15-day DL and a half-dozen men on the 60-day DL. When pitchers such as Phil Hughes and Feliciano eventually return from the 60-day DL, Cashman will be in a tough situation of either using or potentially losing to waivers the guys they have now.

Chamberlain might already be baseball’s active leader in the biggest discrepancy between how much attention he gets compared to how much he’s actually managed to pitch in the major leagues. Heading into the fifth year of his career and his first back-to-back seasons in the same role -- as a reliever -- it’s worth noting that he is still just 25 years old. Spending the rest of 2011 and a good chunk of 2012 rehabbing from the Tommy John surgery he’ll likely need might keep the expense of employing him down in his last two option years. Even then, he’ll still potentially be an under-30 free agent looking for an opportunity to define himself as something other than a subject of Big Apple fascination. In the meantime, we can wish him well in his surgery and his recovery -- while recoveries from Tommy John surgery are relatively certain as these things go, no procedure delivers a 100 percent success rate.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.