12:24 pm Jul. 11, 2012
As currently constructed, the New York Yankees have a strong bullpen. Despite the loss of closer Mariano Rivera, and setup man David Robertson missing a month with an oblique injury, the Yankees have a bullpen E.R.A. of 3.20, which is tenth-best in baseball and sixth-best in the American League.
Combined with stellar starting pitching and a potent offense, it is part of why the Yankees are at least seven games ahead of everyone in the American League East, and have the best record in baseball at the All-Star break.
So within that context, the news that Joba Chamberlain pitched in a Gulf Coast League game on Tuesday doesn't sound like it would mean much.
Chamberlain, after all, has been a reliever since 2010. While he pitched well right up until the moment his elbow gave out in 2011, he didn't pitch at a level that necessarily suggests he'd supplant either Robertson or Rafael Soriano at the end of games.
And yet, the return of Chamberlain, which now must take place within 30 days (a clock begins with the first minor league rehab appearance of a player on the major league disabled list), could be extremely meaningful for the Yankees.
It only seems like a long time ago that Chamberlain sprinted through the Yankee farm system, making it to the big leagues in his first professional season in 2007, then pitching to an otherworldly 0.38 E.R.A. as the eighth-inning option and heir apparent to Mariano Rivera.
Chamberlain then was moved to the starting rotation midway through the 2008 season, and he pitched well in that role over 2008-2009. But the Yankees, looking for more of a sure thing, relegated him to the bullpen, where again, he was solid in 2010 and 2011.
Chamberlain is now 26, and apparently threw 97 miles per hour in his first rehab stint. The reason he was such a highly regarded starting pitching prospect was not simply his fastball, but his array, and command of, secondary pitches.
The Yankees sure don't need him out of the bullpen this year, and even with CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte injured, they have pitchers like David Phelps down at Double-A laying waste the minor league hitters he's facing because there's no spot for him.
But both Pettitte, 40, and Hiroki Kuroda, 37, are only signed through this year. There's no guarantee that either will return, opening up a pair of spots in the rotation.
So maybe the Yankees will revisit their decision to put Chamberlain back in the bullpen. They could option him to Triple-A when his rehab stint is up, let him start a few games until the minor league season ends at the end of August. By September, the Yankees may well have the kind of breathing room that allows them to play the kids, at which point they could get Chamberlain a few starts in New York and throw him in the mix for next year's rotation, along with Phelps and Michael Pineda, who will be returning from injury. They'll need more than five starters; if 2012 has taught the Yankees anything, it has taught them that.
Chamberlain will be 27 in 2013, and his recovery from Tommy John surgery will hopefully be behind him. He'll still be the kind of pitching option that most other teams would kill for. In the Yankees bullpen, he'd just be a spare part.