Short Hops: The Joba/Wang Connection

The Yankees have miscast two of their best arms
05/28/2009 11:30 AM ET
By Jerome Preisler / Special to

The fire and passion that Joba Chamberlain brought to the eighth inning hasn't been there as a starting pitcher, writes Jerome Preisler. (AP)
An 18th round draft pick in 2004, he was a right-handed, flame-throwing starter with an attitude who shot up through the team's farm system as a starting pitcher, made his Major League debut the next year in both starting and relief roles, and eventually became a late-inning reliever due to another player's ineffectiveness out of the bullpen. As the 2006 season approached, the team continued to see him as an eventual starter, but his particular mental and physical makeup, and the team's short — and longterm needs, led them to review and eventually revise their plans for him.

His name was Jonathan Papelbon and, as the team's closer, he has been critical to the Red Sox's success over the past several seasons.

When Joba Chamberlain burst upon the New York baseball scene in 2007 as a lockdown eight-inning setup man, the energy he brought to that role took the city — and in some ways the entire country — by storm. And with good reason. Here was a kid throwing fastballs in the upper nineties and occasionally seared into the triple digits, complimenting with 89 mph sliders. Here was a kid who attacked batters with a bulldog mentality and an arm that backed it up. Here was a jolt of emotion that made the Stadium roar and set opposing batters on their collective heels as they flailed their way back toward their dugout. One, two three.

The eighth inning was Joba time. And as he left the mound, it was time to key up "Enter Sandman."

It is now time to end the debate about Joba Chamberlain, to stop equivocating about his Yankees future to the detriment of the team. Joba should be returned to the bullpen's eighth-inning setup role and groomed to replace Mariano Rivera as its closer. He is Rivera's best, and perhaps only, realistic successor.

Rivera has one year remaining on his contract after 2009 and has said he will retire after it expires. When that happens, it will do more than end an era of dominant, unsurpassable greatness at his position. It will leave the Yankees grappling with a paradigm shift unlike any they've faced since the start of the Joe Torre era.

If the maxim that winning teams are built around pitching is true, then it can be argued the New York Yankees have built from the ninth inning on back since 1997, when Rivera became the bedrock of their pitching staff. In the decade and change since, Rivera has been the one consistently reliable element of the team's winning formula and its single most valuable player. The assumption that late leads will be protected when Rivera enters the game — even in the biggest games, the postseason games that count the most — instills a unique confidence in every player and coach's mind. That is a luxury few teams possess, and that no other team in the history of baseball has enjoyed for the length of time — or to the degree — that the Yankees have since Rivera's emergence.

The departure of Rivera is so dreaded in the Yankees' universe it appears that few choose to consider its ramifications in a clear, levelheaded light. Instead they focus on the cost of acquiring top-tier starting pitchers through free agency and decide slotting Chamberlain into the rotation is a viable, inexpensive alternative.

With his inconsistency and recurrent tentativeness on the mound as a starter, Chamberlain who many inside and outside the Yankee clubhouse view as a solution to the Yankees' bullpen problems and the logical heir to a closer role that Rivera will eventually vacate, has become yet another problem that has to be solved if the team is to succeed — now and in the future.

And a future without a closer who at least approaches Rivera's success rate is there for us to see now, as evident as flowers in a field — or perhaps "weeds in a field" would be a better metaphor. In the Yankees' own division, both the Toronto Blue Jays and last year's AL East champions, the Tampa Bay Rays, are stumbling toward irrelevance largely due to bullpen inefficiency and, most specifically, lack of a reliable closer.

Rivera, whether through his participation or waiting presence in critical games, is the exclamation point at the end of the sentence that reads, "The Yankees win!" When he retires from baseball. along with the uniform number he is the sole remaining player to ever wear, the sentence will be left to trail off into indeterminacy with an ellipsis followed by a question mark.

Or to put that starkly in view: "The Yankees win ...?"

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi have repeatedly indicated the organization has made its decision about Chamberlain. But in every aspect of life, success is contingent on intellectual flexibility, an ability and willingness to reevaluate positions as evidence that challenges them appears and circumstances change and evolve. When we unwilling or unable reassess important decisions, we have succumbed to inertia and are in the process of fading into decay.

It is fitting and somewhat ironic that Chamberlain's future is tied to that of another Yankees asset-turned-problem, Chien-Ming Wang. Even as they reconsider their decision to shape Chamberlain into a member of its starting rotation, the Yankees should stop allowing a proven starter, two-time 19-game winner Chien Ming Wang, to languish in the bullpen waiting for mop-up and garbage-time roles. He is out of Minor League options and, barring another rehab stint on the disabled list, must remain on the Yankees' 40-man roster.

Wang's two recent performances out of the bullpen, the first against the Philadelphia Phillies on May 22, his second in Texas Wednesday night, make it clear that he has nothing more to rehab but his stamina and confidence, and this can — and when we speak of confidence, must be — accomplished at the Major League level. His lost velocity has nearly returned, and his control and command are on the way.

Wang's current status, so aptly detailed by my colleague Jon Lane (who disagrees with me on Chamberlain) is untenable. To let it abide would be organizationally myopic and irresponsible.

Wang is not just a sinkerball pitcher, but a 29 year-old power sinkerball pitcher who, between 2005-2007, and then into his injury-shortened 2008 season, built a reputation as the best in the sport. This makes him a premium commodity at the new Yankee Stadium.

Wang's entire game is premised on keeping the ball down. And just ask a longtime Yankee pitcher — and the rotation's sole holdover from the championship years — how vital that can be for the home team.

"It's simple: If you leave a ball up and they hit in on the barrel, right now it's a home run," said Andy Pettitte after his most recent start at the new Yankee Stadium. He went on to add, "You have to get the ball down, especially if you are not overpowering. If you don't have, or if you are not throwing, overpowering stuff, you cannot let your guard down ever out there right now."

After Wang's impressive two innings of work in Texas, catcher Kevin Cash said, "Sinkerballers are contact pitchers, rollover, ground-ball type guys. He got swing-and-misses on his sinker, that's how good it was [Wednesday]. I know everybody harps on the velocity, but the big thing is the movement. You can pitch with that kind of movement at 88-91."

Girardi would underscore Cash's remarks with these words: "That's as good as I've seen (Wang) this year," Girardi said. "That's the Chien-Ming Wang we've seen so often. That's what we want to see from him. That's a huge building block."

The Yankees must open their eyes to what is before them, and listen to their own words. They must formulate a cohesive, expedient plan that simultaneously reinserts Chien-Ming Wang into their starting rotation (along with CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes), and that moves Joba Chamberlain into the eighth inning setup role to solidify the current bullpen and finally crown him the heir apparent to the greatest closer of all time.

The less time wasted, the better.

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Jerome Preisler is the multiple New York Times bestselling author of ALL HANDS DOWN: The Soviet Attack on the USS Scorpion, available in paperback from Pocket Books in July, 2009. With his wife, Suzanne, he is co-author of the comedic mystery NOTORIOUSLY NEAT (Signet/Obsidian). His profile of legendary Yankees announcer Bob Sheppard appears in YANKEES ANNUAL 2009 from Maple Street Press (edited by Cecilia Tan). This is his fifth year of baseball commentary for comments