Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Yankees' plan for future currently on display
By Buster Olney ESPN The Magazine
Editor's Note: This story appears in the Sept. 10 edition of ESPN The Magazine.
The savior is summoned from the bullpen. As he begins his journey across the outfield grass, the crowd in Yankee Stadium rises to its feet. It's a murky August day, but with the Yankees trying to haul themselves into contention, it feels like October. The full house is in full throat, and when public address announcer Bob Sheppard introduces the pitcher, the roar gets even louder.
Four infielders and catcher Jorge Posada wait on the mound with Joe Torre, all of them watching the pitcher, because his entrance is always a can't-miss event. He reaches the apron of the mound, and Alex Rodriguez nods at him. Torre gives him the ball. There are more eyes on the pitcher than on Tiger at the 18th hole of the Masters, and even greater expectations.
Joba Chamberlain has 17 strikeouts and has allowed just four hits in 10 innings pitched thus far for the Yankees.
Mariano Rivera watches from the bullpen as the savior, Joba Chamberlain, warms up for his seventh inning in the big leagues. On this day, he has been asked to shut down the middle of the Detroit lineup. With the Yankees up 4-3 in the seventh, Chamberlain pumps fastballs at Gary Sheffield, who cannot catch up to a chest-high, 98 mph bullet and pops out. Magglio Ordonez, the Tigers' MVP candidate, flails at the vapor trails of three fastballs and whiffs. Two outs. Carlos Guillen gets Chamberlain's slider, which seems to be a hybrid of Ron Guidry's Louisiana lightning and Rivera's cutter, and because he is wary of the fastball, he cannot check his swing. Nine pitches, three outs, two punch-outs, one more inning of total domination. The fans are on their feet again as Chamberlain walks off, his teammates tapping him with their gloves as they pass.
The response to Chamberlain reflects his talents. "He's got physical tools that come along once in a lifetime," says bullpen coach Joe Kerrigan, who worked with a young Randy Johnson in Montreal. But Yankee fans also love Chamberlain because of what he represents. The 21-year-old right-hander is the most gifted product of GM Brian Cashman's 24-month organizational reconstruction, the crown jewel of the club's attempt to turn back the clock to the days when the farm system teemed with prospects suited to the inherent pressure of being Yankees. Where once there was Bernie and Jeter and Rivera and Posada and Pettitte, there is now Phil Hughes, another 21-year-old righty whose laid-back demeanor belies his electric stuff; Melky Cabrera, the underrated, understated 23-year-old center fielder who keeps up a steady stream of sandlot chatter during games; and Joba (pronounced JOB-ba), whose shoulders are as square as the southwestern notch of his home state, Nebraska.
A river of youth flows through the Bronx.
TWO YEARS AGO, exhausted from fighting the internal wars that come with the territory, Cashman decided to walk away. "There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen," he says now. Even as he prepared for his departure, he told George Steinbrenner that the organization needed a major makeover. Rather than having various departments -- scouting, player development, the big league club -- report separately to Steinbrenner, Cashman argued, the team needed a linear chain of command, led by a single executive who answered only to The Boss. "You shouldn't have to look for someone to blame," Cashman told Steinbrenner. "One person should be responsible."
After spending his entire working life with the Yankees, Cashman had reluctantly concluded that he wasn't going to be that person. He was convinced that Steinbrenner would never restructure the way he suggested, and in the last days before his contract was set to expire, on Oct. 31, 2005, he informed general partner Steve Swindal and team president Randy Levine that he was going. Cashman's phone rang almost immediately. On the other end was a familiar voice. "Why don't you do what you're recommending?" The Boss asked.
Cashman quickly rededicated the scouting and player development departments to doing what they'd done so well in the early '90s: finding and fostering high-ceiling talent, particularly pitchers. Cashman wanted the team to stop making safe draft picks; he wanted it to take chances. After all, the Yankees had the money to cover their mistakes.
Chamberlain, for one, wasn't always a high-ceiling talent. Three years ago, he was just a heavy kid who'd been a manager of his high school basketball team. But after a year at D2 Nebraska-Kearney, he transferred to Nebraska and learned how to throw a slider. By the winter of 2005-06, he was regarded as a rock-solid first-rounder, but in the weeks leading up to the draft his stock slipped, fueled by rumors that his diminished velocity was the result of hidden arm trouble, not fatigue. Yankees scouting director Damon Oppenheimer wasn't one of the doubters. Then again, the team's first supplemental pick was 41st overall.
On draft day, the conference call began, and in the war room, Yankees officials started to pull the placards of their highest-rated players off the board as they were picked by other teams. Deep into the first round, Chamberlain's placard was still hanging, all by itself. "There's no way he'll get to us," Oppenheimer said aloud. But as the draft moved into the "sandwich picks," between the first and second rounds, Chamberlain still hadn't been taken. "You don't think this could happen, do you?" Oppenheimer asked another executive. And then it did. At No. 41, an ecstatic Oppenheimer submitted the name of Joba Chamberlain.
Of course, before Chamberlain made it to the big leagues this summer, things had to go very badly for the Yankees, and for Brian Cashman.
STEINBRENNER'S ARRIVAL at Yankee Stadium once prompted organization-wide 911 calls, with everybody from receptionists to custodians to players to executives tracking his movements as if he were a swirling mass on Doppler radar. But Steinbrenner turned 77 in July, and these days he's rarely in New York, instead addressing most of his reduced workload with phone calls from Tampa. (Despite reports that his employer is failing mentally and physically, Cashman says they still talk strategy three or four times a day, every day.) In bad times, the reduced contact between Steinbrenner and his employees can generate waves of uncertainty.
The rotation was a mess in April, and the offense shriveled in May, and as the Red Sox moved 14½ games ahead, others in the organization believed there was a real chance Cashman would be stripped of his power. "He's on a big hook," Steinbrenner said of Cashman in a rare interview with the Associated Press, speaking words he'd said repeatedly to his GM's face. "He wanted sole authority. He got it. Now he's got to deliver."
As the Yankees continued to regress, Cashman was befuddled and discouraged.
"I can't believe we're this bad," he told an executive of another club.
Still, he was resolute in his belief that the organization was on the right course, and he wasn't about to look for any quick fixes. Cashman had long been peppered with inquiries from other teams about Hughes. "We're not going to move him," Cashman replied. "He's part of the group that will either succeed or fail with us."
Some rivals wondered if the GM was too protective of his young players.
"It's one thing to like your own prospects," says a veteran talent evaluator. "But when you start saying no to everything, you're in jeopardy of overvaluing your own guys. In some cases, I think that's what Brian is doing."
But now the Yankees are entering the stretch riding a 29-14 second-half surge to within striking distance of the wild card, and it looks as if Cashman's youngsters might have saved the season. Cabrera, whose range and arm complement a .293 batting average, has supplanted Johnny Damon in center. Emerging from a hellish slump, 24-year-old second baseman Robinson Cano has hit .366 since the break. Shelley Duncan, a 27-year-old rookie first baseman, was promoted on July 20 and slammed four homers in his first 21 at-bats. Hughes, recovered from a strained hamstring, has lent stability to the rotation. And Chamberlain, called up amid much fanfare in early August, struck out 14 of the 28 batters he faced in his first 15 days in the majors.
But their biggest contribution might be the energy they bring to the clubhouse. Cano and Cabrera often begin their workdays with power lunches and afternoon workouts alongside A-Rod and end them with victorious chest-bumps. Duncan, the son of Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, is gregarious and outgoing -- the team mascot, Torre jokingly calls him -- and he seems to share a running gag with everybody. Each day, for example, players fill out a ticket-request sign-up sheet, listing guests and the number of tickets they need; everyone leaves the comment line empty. That's a vacuum Duncan has to fill, inventing new responses daily. Good friend. Went to high school together, he might write, or Met them at the museum.
Chamberlain, meanwhile, is usually stone-faced in the bullpen. But early in one August game, TV cameras caught him trying to flip his cap onto his head and jiggling around until it settled in place. "It's totally different than it was here five years ago, with these guys," says one Yankee vet. "It's fun."
Chamberlain and Hughes and Cabrera each make less in a year than Roger Clemens earns in four days, but that sets them up better for the Bronx pressure cooker. "When young players come in," Cashman says, "the fans and the media are aware of them, but they don't expect them to go 3-for-4 every game. Then the reaction can be, 'Hey, this guy is pretty good.' "
The game is filled with pressure. Some of the best players fail 65 percent of the time. So there's no sense in worrying.
-- Joba Chamberlain
CHAMBERLAIN'S FATHER, Harlan, had polio as a boy, which forced him into a wheelchair. His resilience shapes his son, who has impressed older Yankees with his presence and work habits. Some believe Chamberlain is influencing Hughes, too, by arriving early, preparing diligently and presuming nothing.
He often can be seen chatting with, and listening to, Clemens (they share the same agent), and in his first hours in the bigs, Joba talked strategy with Rivera in the bullpen in Toronto. "This game can be taken away from you in a heartbeat," he says. "It would be a sin to be around guys like that and not ask questions."
Chamberlain would seem to have the perfect makeup and stuff to replace Rivera, if not for the fact that he's always been a starter and the Yankees plan to put him in the rotation next year. The Red Sox, of course, once had a similar plan for Jonathan Papelbon.
Before Chamberlain pitched his first inning, Kerrigan made a point to look into his face, because long ago, Expos manager Felipe Alou told him you could see a lot in a face in a moment like that. "There wasn't any tenseness," Kerrigan recalls. "You're talking about someone 21 years old. That's pretty special."
Chamberlain admits that what Kerrigan sees is what you get. "The game is filled with pressure," he says. "Some of the best players fail 65 percent of the time. So there's no sense in worrying."
For now, when the bullpen phone rings for Chamberlain, he'll stand and get right to work, tossing his fastball and his slider, then mixing in a changeup, another high-caliber pitch he might not have to use in a game until he becomes a starter again. When he's warmed up, he'll step through the bullpen door and walk into a future of promise. And that gives the Yankees the promise of a future.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He updates his Insider blog each morning on ESPN.com.