Kevin Kernan of The New York Post believes that Joba should be back in the bullpen now that they re-signed Pettite. I disagree. I’m not saying there isn’t a certain logic and some persuasiveness to returning Joba to the set-up position, with Swedski commenting in a different thread about grooming Joba to succeed Mariano. It makes some sense because Joba was terrific in relief, and success matters and adds a compelling dimension to that argument. But to me, Joba’s stuff is too good to be used in 75-80 innings. Especially after the rotation struggles and ensuing struggles from Ponson and Rasner last year, I object primarily more to how Kernan makes his argument than that he has a different viewpoint. He states that
An eighth-inning dynamo is much more important to the Yankees now than a back-end starter, and besides, the Yankees have candidates for that fifth spot, including Phil Hughes and Alfredo Aceves.
This presumes a lot. I don’t agree that an “eighth-inning dynamo” is far more relevant to the Yanks now that a back-end starter. But more importantly, the so-called “back-end starter” is Joba, a guy with front-end stuff. He’s not a decent occasional fill-in like Rasner, or a body with an inconsistent body of work like Ponson. He’s Grade A, and the more innings he can go–probably about 150-170 this year if healthy–the better. Kernan also ignores that the Yankees were dead last in the AL for much of 2008 in starters’ innings pitched, and finished 12th. The Yankees not only need pitchers to perform well in starts, they also need steady contributions from several pitchers–not a cavalcade of mediocrity like last year–to provide them, and to minimize the wear on a bullpen that, not surprisingly, logged the second-most innings for bullpens in the AL.
Joba in the 5th spot is perfect. He can get skipped now and then. He has good enough stuff to dazzle at the back end, and to be a stopper if necessary right before Sabathia, with whose stuff Joba’s should mix quite well. That’s something not to overlook–how the pitchers’ respective repertoire interacts with each other and looks to batters. Seeing Joba and Sabathia back-to-back in the transition from fifth starter with ace stuff to the first starter with ace stuff will certainly be imposing, and is to me far more important to the Yankees than using Joba for only an inning at a time.
Additionally, Kernan states that the Yankees have candidates in Hughes and Aceves, which is true. But again, Kernan presumes that Hughes is ready for the majors. He might be, or he might need to hone complementary pitches such as the cutter he worked on in the Fall League. Hughes certainly needs something to keep batter from sitting on fastball-curve ball, an will probably benefit from regular work in SWB working with the highly touted pitching coach Scott Aldred. Aceves might be ready, but whether or not he can be effective over a full season with stuff not dissimilar to Rasner’s has me somewhat concerned.
It should concern Kernan, too, who also overlooks the deep list of bullpen candidates the Yankees already have without Joba. Veras throws hard and should do well–probably not great, but well. Marte is due to bounce back to his usually sharp form. Coke was impressive in his short stint and might get moved back to the bullpen to add a second lefty, something I and others have advocated. Humberto Sanchez is coming off an injury, throws hard, and will get a look. Same with Albaladejo. Mark Melancon has been groomed for set-up work in the minors and himself will get a shot, and may impress enough to make it to the Bronx. In addition to Edwar for 6th-7th inning work, the Yankees don’t lack bullpen options. They might not be lights out like Joba was. But the bullpen was the most solid part of the team last year, performing consistently and often admirably as they were taxed by a depleted and ineffective rotation.
Just because the Yankees have shored up the rotation with key acquisitions, re-signings, and Wang’s welcome return doesn’t mean that all is well, that anyone can be a fifth starter. A rotation is five effective pitchers, and the Yankees cannot afford to have the same question marks mar the rotation as they have for some time–since the end of 2003, actually. 2009 has the chance to reverse that laborious trend of uncertainty and lapses of ineffectiveness, and Joba in the fifth spot gives them the best shot at rotation consistency and depth that the Yankees have not had since they last reached the World Series.