Monday, September 15, 2008

Joba Chamberlain

This is a pointless fluff piece, but it still illuminates a bit of poor resource management that I feel I should write about.

A few weeks ago, there was a big hullabaloo when C.C. Sabathia was left in to throw 130 pitches in a game where the Brewers entered the ninth inning with a 7-run lead. (That doesn't necessarily mean the lead was safe, of course.) Though the merits of letting Sabathia finish the game remain trivial, the risk in doing so was mitigated by Sabathia's impending free agency; if he suffered a career-ending injury, it would have cost the Brewers only a month of C.C.'s services, rather than several years' worth.

In the case of someone like Tim Lincecum, the math is different. The Giants--who are obviously going nowhere this year--continue to ride Seabiscuit hard, letting him go to 138 pitches in his latest outing. Lincecum is contractually bound to the Giants for the next five years, and is the single most important factor in the future of their franchise. Letting him top 120 pitches in meaningless games as a matter of course is reckless behavior on San Francisco's part.

This brings us to Joba Chamberlain. The Yankees have already announced that Joba will open 2009 in the bullpen, and it seems like he will remain there for awhile. Like Lincecum, Chamberlain is under contract for five more years at below-market rates. Are the Yankees simply exercising proper caution with their future ace?

No, I think they're going too far. Yes, they're protecting their investment in Joba's future, but in doing so, they're wasting the most valuable resource in baseball--a star player with a tiny salary. By leaving him in the 'pen, the Yankees are certainly improving Joba's chances of staying healthy for a 15-year career, but what is that really worth to them?

Mark Prior is considered a huge bust, but the Cubs paid him about $15 million in salary and he certainly returned more than $15 million of on-field value to the team. If the Cubs could choose between Prior or Barry Zito--who has never been injured--for their respective careers, salaries included, wouldn't they choose Prior? I would; Zito looks very unlikely to have a career worth $144 million.

If the Yankees sign Chamberlain to a big free agent contract at the end of the 2013 season, history says they're likely going to receive a poor return on their investment. Meanwhile, right now they could have one of the top 15 (or so) starting pitchers in baseball on their squad, playing for $400,000. That's a potential surplus of $15-20 million, a figure the Yankees are doing their best to minimize.

Furthermore, the Yankees aren't the Giants, who have no chance to contend until 2010 at the earliest. They're going to be right back in the thick of things next year, and an extra win or two would have a huge impact on their chances of making the playoffs in a tough division.

New York's first concern should be to get as much value as they can out of Chamberlain while he's still cost-controlled. That doesn't mean letting him throw 138 pitches, but it does mean they need to get him into the starting rotation ASAP. Joba has already proven he can handle starting in the major leagues; now let him.

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