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Thursday, March 26, 2009
30 Questions: What is Joba Chamberlain's role?

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.

What, exactly, can we make of Joba Chamberlain?

Not in a very long time have we been presented with a pitcher like this, who spawns so much buzz, so much controversy and so many questions:

• What should Joba's role be this year?
• What about the year after that, and the year after that, etc.?
• Will and should Joba have his innings capped in 2009?
• What about a strict, per-start pitch count?
• Will Joba stay healthy regardless of restrictions?
• Which Pepsi does Joba prefer, Diet, Max, Vanilla, Wild Cherry, Lemon, Lime or just plain ol' … well … plain?

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It's enough to make your head spin.

Unfortunately -- and as a person who has witnessed almost every inning ever logged in Joba Chamberlain's big league career I can attest this statement's truth -- the answer to every one of those questions is absolutely fantasy-relevant.

The problem is that in addressing every one of those questions, you're only feeding into the frenzy that is the grand, overall Joba Chamberlain question.

So let me try to answer the Joba Chamberlain question with some broad, general statements, before we get into specifics: He's a very special pitcher. He's going to be a very special pitcher for a long, long time. I prefer to see him groomed for a career in relief work. But he will be groomed as a starter.

What should Joba's role be this year?

Again, there's a clear deviation between what I -- and others -- think Joba's 2009 role should be. I think he should be a reliever. Those who don't reside on that bandwagon with me think it's a foolish proposition to pigeonhole a talent like this into a 60-inning window each year, as opposed to maximizing his potential with 200 frames.

To those critics, I point out that we have no concrete evidence that Chamberlain could hold up to pitching 200-plus innings per year consistently. He might be another Kerry Wood or Rich Harden in that role. Who's to assume he's the next Roger Clemens? In addition, there's nothing to say we have to limit Joba the reliever to 60 frames. He could pitch 75 per year, and could be deployed at any point in any game for any length outing, maximizing his impact out of the bullpen. As a starter, he'd throw once every five nights, without much freedom to tinker with his role and put him into high-leverage contests.

The Yankees have the rotation depth to afford to keep Chamberlain in the bullpen, at least for this season. Phil Hughes, who once was considered the top pitching prospect in all of baseball, is now sixth on the team's starting-pitching depth chart (and was recently sent back to the minors) despite a 2.19 spring ERA. That's when you know you're deep. And that doesn't even address alternative options like Alfredo Aceves or Ian Kennedy, or even swingman Brett Tomko.

Nevertheless, no matter what you think Chamberlain's role should be in 2009, the answer is that it is going to be starting pitcher. The Yankees have made their intentions crystal clear, and that he has made all four of his spring appearances as a starter cements that.

What about future years?

Joba Chamberlain
Joba Chamberlain probably has the most fantasy value now as a starter but his best real value could be as a reliever.
My personal stance on Chamberlain's future role remains unchanged, and in fact, probably becomes increasingly stilted toward having him be a reliever, what with current Yankees closer Mariano Rivera set to turn 40 years old next November. Not that I'd suggest the Yankees could ever literally "replace" Rivera's production, but who from their current bullpen could one day serve as his successor, Jose Veras? Puh-leeeeze.

That's why it's curious that the Yankees, according to a recent report in the New York Post, regard Chamberlain as their fallback option at closer should anything happen to Rivera this season. In other words, if you're a Rivera owner who feels a need for a handcuff, neither Veras, nor Damaso Marte, nor any other Yankees reliever should be your choice … your pick should actually be Chamberlain himself!

Will and should Joba have his innings capped?

There have been numerous studies of the impact of a significant innings boost from season to season on a pitcher's arm, and that Chamberlain battled some health problems that limited him to 100 1/3 frames in 2008 means that, yes, he probably should be capped. The Yankees have suggested privately that cap will come at 150 innings in 2009, a somewhat conservative number but one that probably isn't significantly off what it should be.

The problem, though, is that if what manager Joe Girardi told The New York Times is true -- that Chamberlain will make 30 starts in 2009 and will not be skipped on off days for so long as he is healthy -- there's no conceivable way the Yankees will be able to limit Joba to 150 innings. For one thing, baseball history is not on their side:

• In 2008, the MLB average was 5.81 innings pitched per start, which would project to more than 174 innings over a 30-start season.
• No pitcher has made 30 starts in a season and thrown fewer than the 154 innings that Tony Armas Jr. did in 2006. Only 76 pitchers all-time have made 30 or more starts in a season and thrown fewer than 175 innings.
• The most starts any pitcher has ever made in a season without surpassing 150 innings was 28, by Kyle Davies (2007), Bob Wolcott (1996), Sean Bergman (1995), Preston Hanna (1978) and Pete Redfern (1977). They all had losing records and five-plus ERAs.

In no way does Joba Chamberlain belong in the same sentence as Kyle Davies, not to mention his Yankees are far more likely to advance to the postseason than Davies' Royals. The prospect of October baseball puts his workload even more under the microscope, and the fact he's one of the talents most critical toward getting them to October makes him someone the team isn't going to want to put a leash on late in the year.

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To put it another way: If your pitcher is throwing a no-hitter through six innings but his pitch count is only 80-85, are you really going to take him out of the game? Or from a full-season perspective, if you're a team in a dogfight for a playoff spot and your pitcher is leading the league in ERA on Labor Day but he's already at 28 starts and 168 innings for the season, can you confidently say "enough is enough"?

More likely, the Yankees will give Chamberlain -- health willing -- his 30 turns, and look the other direction when he breezes past the 150-inning limit, perhaps approaching or exceeding 180. Then, probably only depending upon the team's standing, will they consider shutting him down for 2009.

What about a strict pitch count?

Ah, an easy one (relatively speaking, of course).

If the Yankees are serious about that 30-start, 150-inning cap for Chamberlain in 2009, then without a doubt they'll have to have him on a strict pitch count. For his career he has averaged 16.6 pitches per inning, and if you extract only his average in games started, it's 17.4. If he is to pitch 150 innings over 30 starts, he'd have to average five frames per turn, and multiplying that by his pitch efficiency puts him at a pitch count of about 87.

That's yet another reason why I see no chance that, given 30 starts, Chamberlain will be limited to only 150 innings pitched. Even if he's on a strict pitch count of 100 per start, by his career performance to date he'd average 5.75 innings per turn, which equates to more than 172 innings spread over 30 starts.

Will Joba stay healthy?

Here's the area I see being most likely to rein in his number of innings pitched. It can't be glazed over that he spent nearly a month on the disabled list late last season with a rotator-cuff strain, not at all the kind of thing you want to see in a pitcher. Chamberlain also dealt with triceps tendinitis in college in 2006, and many scouts were troubled by his weight at the time, factors that need be considered in evaluating the overall package.

Of course, that Chamberlain began 2008 as a reliever before being ramped up into a starter's role over a one-month period in May might not have done him any favors in the health department. As a result he fell short of the Yankees' expectations for his innings total, which is the very reason they're suggesting a conservative approach to it this season.

It might also portend future health issues for Chamberlain, who will be hailed a prime DL candidate until such point he proves himself capable of a full, uninterrupted 200-inning season at the big league level. Count me among one of the many who believe that if Joba is to start all year yet be capped at 150 innings, the only reason it'll happen is because he made another trip to the disabled list.

Which Pepsi does Joba prefer?

Kidding, kidding! I know no one cares about that.

What they do care about, however, is the upshot of all this, how it pertains to his 2009 fantasy value. Chamberlain is currently being selected 25th, on average, among starting pitchers, right behind the aforementioned Harden, a fairly comparable risk/reward candidate.

But there's a difference between the two: We know Harden is injury-prone. Since Chamberlain has yet to complete a full season in a big league rotation, do we have any right to label him as such? He has, after all, made just one trip to the DL in his two professional seasons, and has thrown 100-plus innings in each of them, not bad for a 23-year-old. Harden, by comparison, has thrown 100 innings in only one of the past three years.

Chamberlain has a 2.76 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and an 11.71 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio in his 12 career starts. Harden has a 3.28 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and an 8.95 K/9 ratio in his 101. Harden might be the riskiest member of the top 25 starters. But he probably belongs there, accounting for his performance thus far and future potential.

I'm not saying Chamberlain is any guarantee to stay healthy all year, or that if he does, that it might not jeopardize his chances at avoiding a Harden- or Kerry Wood-like future career. But I like that the Yankees made a firm commitment to his role at the onset of spring training, and to this date appear ready to stand by it by hell or high water.

It's that commitment, and the upside it presents, that actually has me pretty confident in Chamberlain in 2009. Again, he's a special talent, and at 23, if he can just be lucky enough to stay on the mound all year, Chamberlain has the potential to put forth a very special season. Think top-10 starter potential at a No. 25 overall starter's price.

ESPN.com fantasy baseball analyst Tristan H. Cockcroft is a two-time LABR champion, most recently winning in 2008. You can e-mail him here.