How to make the Yankees perfect
As you might recall, I've been defending Joba Chamberlain's ability to thrive as a starter since he arrived in the majors two years ago. This season, in April, May, June and into July, even as Chamberlain's ERA hovered in the high threes, there were calls for a return to the bullpen. "But he's got an ERA in threes!" we cried. "He'll learn to throw more strikes and go deeper into games!"
And so he did ... but ever so briefly. In three late-July starts, Chamberlain went 3-0 with a 0.83 ERA and pitched into the seventh inning in each start. The highlight came on the 29th in St. Petersburg, when he needed only 101 pitches to blank the Rays for eight innings. Vindication! For Brian Cashman, for me, for others of my ilk, and (most of all) for Chamberlain.
Since that game in St. Petersburg, Chamberlain has started six games. He's not pitched more than six innings in any of them. He's won just one of them and lost three. He's struck out 20 hitters and walked 17. His ERA has jumped from 3.58 to 4.41. He's looked nothing like a pitcher you might trust in a big game. And he's pitched 137 innings, which doesn't seem like a lot but is 36 more than he's ever pitched before. If he's struggling now because he's tired, what's going to happen in October after another 25 or 30 innings?
Which is where Hughes comes in. Chamberlain is the Yankees' No. 4 starter. Sergio Mitre is the Yankees' No. 5 starter. Which means the Yankees, as things stand now, have only three reliable starters. And again, you need four of them when the leaves are turning in New England.
I know, I know ... Phil Hughes has been so good in the bullpen: 1.11 ERA with an overpowering strikeout-to-walk ratio. Make him a starter again and he's not going to post numbers anything like those. But to help the Yankees, he doesn't have to be anywhere near that good; he just has to be measurably better than Chamberlain and Mitre. Particularly if -- and I know this is highly speculative -- Chamberlain regains his dominant stuff upon returning to a relief role.
Perhaps I'm overreacting to Chamberlain's recent struggles, and the Yankees are good enough to win the World Series even without a decent fourth starter. But the other day somebody asked me what could keep the Yankees from winning. I didn't have a good answer, because this is essentially a team without a weakness.
Except one. And with a little creativity, they could probably make it zero.