Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Hughes Vs. Joba: Who Ya Got?

Once again, Joel Sherman was johnny on the spot with his column today about the "Joba vs. Hughes for the 5-spot in the rotation"-debate. The entire article can be found here.  In it, he correctly stated that Hughes should be the 5th starter and that Joba is a better fit as Mo's setup man and the heir to the throne, but also brought up the potential issues that arise if the Yanks take that path and some other points to consider. Here are the highlights:

"...The bigger question the Yanks might want to ask in spring is not Joba vs. Hughes as much as 2010 vs. the future.
Because aren't the 2010 Yanks much better if both Joba and Hughes are in the bullpen?"

The argument could be made that having both as shutdown bullpen options ahead of Mo would be beneficial for the Yankees. After the taxing workload that Joe put on CC, A.J., and Andy through the playoffs last year, it would be nice to be able to shorten games in the regular season and keep them at 6 or 7 innings even if they are pitching well, knowing that he may want to use the 3-man playoff rotation again come playoff time. Hughes-to Joba-to Mo could be a modern day version of The Nasty Boys, with Marte, Robertson, and Aceves sprinkled in to provide depth. Those 6 together pitching well would give the Yanks the best bullpen in baseball, and would give them ample opportunities to keep their starters fresh through the first 162 and cover up a potential weak spot at the end of the rotation without sacrificing wins.

Of course, Sherman's theory that adding Vazquez to the rotation lessens the importance of the 5th starter is a little misguided. A quality starter is better than a quality reliever, and nowhere was that more apparent for the Yankees than last year's postseason when their starters, for the most part, outperformed their bullpen. Phil Hughes as a potential 12-15-win guy at the back end of the rotation is a better option than a season of Chad Gaudin or Sergio Mitre, and also more valuable than Phil Hughes the potential shutdown middle relief guy. No matter how good a bullpen is, it can't mask a bad rotation. Getting your best 5-man starting rotation out there is the most important thing when it comes to pitching and no spot in the rotation should be taken for granted, especially at the expense of strengthening your bullpen.

In short, the Yankee bullpen may be better in 2010 with Joba and Hughes in the 'pen, but the pitching staff as a whole and the team as a whole could arguably not be better by potentially sacrificing its best 5-man rotation for bullpen depth.

"Manager Joe Girardi is very protective of relievers, anyway, and with both Chamberlain and Hughes available, he could continue on that path more comfortably while further diminishing the temptation to ever push Rivera into the eighth inning before the postseason."

The other side of the benefit coin is the relief it provides Mo. Having Hughes and Joba in the 'pen together not only helps shorten games for the starters, but also shorten games for Mo. Ensuring that Mo is only needed for the 9th inning or is used for more than 3-out saves as little as possible keeps more gas in his tank for the playoffs. Joe had the whip to Mo practically throughout the entire postseason last year, mainly due to Mo being his best relief pitcher but also due to shaky performances by other guys in the bullpen. Limiting Mo's innings in the regular season helps ease the wear and tear on his 40-year-old body and can make Joe that much more comfortable going to him for 4, 5, or 6 outs in the playoffs if he has to.

But once again, if your rotation is weakened by the inclusion of both Hughes and Joba in the bullpen, you potentially lessen your chances to use Mo, making how much rest he gets a moot point.

"However, to put both Chamberlain and Hughes into the pen would mean that neither is in position to be a full starter in 2011 -- which is a factor not only for cost certainty, but because Vazquez is in his walk year and Pettitte contemplates retirement annually."

This is the big sticking point. The Yankees mismanaged Joba in the rotation so badly last year that they basically wasted a season of his career. And Hughes threw so few innings being in the bullpen that the Yankees would have to manage his innings similarly this season in order to not risk turning him into the next Mark Prior. So if one of these guys is being counted on to replace Vazquez a/o Andy next season, they can't risk having their innings limited this year.

The correct way to manage those innings is to start a guy off in the 'pen or the Minors to keep his innings low and then slowly build his workload up as the season progresses so that by the end of the year he can go out and throw 6 or 7 innings without having to worry about pitch counts or innings limitations. If he can stay healthy and you can get him 150 innings this year, then next year he should be full speed ahead as a regular part of the rotation with no worries and can be counted on to fill a key spot if both Vazquez and Pettitte leave.

Whether the Yankees envision both guys as future starters is irrelevant. The fact is, Hughes has shown more ability to use his pitch repertoire successfully as a starter than Joba has, and Joba's mentality is just better suited for the bullpen. As his initial call-up and demotion to the 'pen for last year's playoffs showed, going from starter to reliever is no big deal; there's less to worry about, less to think about, and pitchers can just rock and fire, which is what Joba likes to do and has had his greatest success doing.

Entertaining the thought of putting both of these guys in the bullpen or experimenting with both in the rotation this season serves to do nothing but retard their growth as pitchers. The Yankees need to commit to spots for both of these guys and those spots should be the rotation for Hughes and the 'pen for Joba. Manage Hughes' innings correctly and there shouldn't be any problems this season or in 2011.

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