Saturday, May 24, 2008

Crosstown Traffic

The Mets are playing later today; perhaps the dawning of the Nick Evans era will prove to be the beginning of something special.

In the meantime, I'm watching the Yankee game and the second step in Joba Chamberlain's transformation back into a starting pitcher. I'm really excited to watch this process unfold, not because I want the Yankees to get better, but because I'm enjoying the way they are going about this process.

First things first: in case there was any lingering doubt, a starting pitcher is more important than an eighth-inning setup man. Locking down the eighth inning means absolutely nothing if you aren't ahead after the first seven innings of the game. There's a reason that the highest paid starter in baseball has a six-year, $137 million contract and the highest paid reliever has a three-year, $45 million contract. Setup men make even less than closers. The Yankees are making the right decision by giving Chamberlain a chance to see what he can do as a starter - if the experiement is successful, he will become more valuable to his team than he is already.

The process by which the Yankees are doing this is a little riskier, but it is a throwback to an earlier era where young starting pitchers were broken in as middle relievers. I've always thought this was a good way of doing things; when I finally get around to writing more about constructing a pitching staff I'll explain why.

That said, the Yankees constructed their staff this year with Chamberlain as their second-best reliever. There is a huge dropoff from there - Latroy Hawkins and Kyle Farnsworth are probably the best relievers the Yankees have after Chamberlain, which is another way of saying that the Yankees have a terrible bullpen outside of Mariano Rivera. Now that Chamberlain is in the process of being stretched out, manager Joe Girardi has two to three innings a night that he may have to entrust to a collection of inferior middle relievers. Rivera can't suddenly start recording two-inning saves regularly, so the rest of the motley crew that the Yankees are employing in the 'pen are going to be pitching in some high leverage situations. The first blown lead that leads to a Yankee loss will be endlessly scrutinized in New York.

The other problem revolves around Chamberlain's performance itself. The Yankees have a 7-4 sixth inning lead as I write this, in a game that they obviously don't want to lose. Chamberlain threw 16 first pitch innings and needs to throw another 35 or so to complete this outing. What if Chamberlain gets torched for four runs in the next 25 pitches? Is Girardi going to pull him if they're trailing 8-7 and short-circuit the stretching out process, to minimize the risk of losing one game? Or are they going to leave him out there for the last 10-15 pitches and risk a deeper deficit? A team that's already off to a slow start and has championship aspirations can't risk more losses, but if Chamberlain isn't allowed to get his work in then it will extend the amount of time before he's truly ready to join the starting rotation.

So yes, it's a risk, and although it's an innovative idea, the move can have negative short-term repercussions for the Yankees. I'm looking forward to seeing how committed they will be to this process, even if it costs the team two or three wins.

Now you're probably saying to yourself, "You know, Jack, you're really good looking and you obviously have forgotten more about baseball then Tim Walsh will ever know. But Tim is always bitching that Aaron Heilman should be made into a starter and you're always resisting. What gives?"

Well, I'll tell you "what gives," Sparky. Heilman failed as a starter and was converted into a reliever, where he found immediate success. Chamberlain was never given the opportunity to do so on the major league level. He went directly into the Yankees bullpen last summer, even as he was tearing up the minor leagues as a starter. It's been less than one year since Chamberlain made his last start; three years have past since Heilman last took the mound in the first inning.

Long story short, I don't think Aaron Heilman is a starter anymore. I think he is a reliever, and I think his body of work in the last three seasons holds more weight than his poor performance in the first seven weeks of 2008. Trying to re-convert him now smacks of impatience and desperation and I still don't think the Mets should do it.

That said, talk to me on July 1 and I might have a different answer. If the Mets are, say, 10 games out of first place and going nowhere fast, then I might consider it. Johan Santana and John Maine are the only two competent starters under contract for next year (Mike Pelfrey doesn't count). The way Oliver Perez has been pitching, I think I'm about ready to take the two draft picks at the end of the season and be done with it. He's a talented starter, but too inconsistent and not worth the money it will take to sign him as a free agent.

The 2009 rotation will have Santana and Maine at the top and Pelfrey at the bottom. Perhaps Heilman should be stretched out, even if it's done during the off-season, and give him a shot at the fourth spot in the rotation. Six weeks from now, maybe the Mets can follow the new Joba Rules and apply them to Aaron Heilman. Just not before.


tim said...

I stopped reading when you made an ass of yourself. I would not characterize Heilman's move to the bullpen as a failure to stick in the rotation. He got less of a chance to make it then Pelfrey has gotten. In subsequent years he was never given a serious chance to make it back into the rotation because Sanchez got hurt. Had Sanchez stayed healthy I think there would have been more of a pedestrian look at him to make the rotation in the the spring of 2007. And to complete my utter domination of your psyche I offer this analogy—I don't like Elvis Presely, just not a fan, but how 5,000,000 Elvis fans be wrong? He has to have some merit.

And for the record the job of making him a starter should fall upon another team, he's done here.

The Yankees will live to regret converting Joba. Do you actually believe that the Yankees have had a more valueable pitcher on their staff the last 15 years than Mariano Rivera? I don't feel Joba will enjoy seeing a lineup the second or third time around, and will ultimately fail as a starter. He should be the heir apparent for Rivera.

Judge Roughneck said...

Awww, I thought you'd like the attention!

Heilman made 25 starts for the Mets before being shifted into the bullpen. Pelfrey made his 25th start as a Met the other night. I think you have a point about circumstances though; I don't see the Mets converting Pelfrey before next season at the earliest.

Mariano has certainly been the Yankees' most valuable pitcher in the last 15 years, because his dominance in the postseason is simply unparallaled in baseball history. The Yankees still make the playoffs all those years with or without Rivera; but they don't win championships and make World Series appearances without him. So I stick to my original assertion, which is that starters are far more important than releivers, with the caveat that the greatest reliever in baseball history may indeed be more important that a starter.