In April 2008, the New York Yankees opened the MLB season with a rotation of Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy. Employing two first-round picks that never pitched a full season at the major-league level, the Yankees were set to embark on a new era in their starting rotation. After pitching just 116 innings in the previous campaign due to multiple injuries, Hughes was likely slated to throw 170-180 innings because he had a career-high of 146 IP over his 2006 campaign at High-A Tampa (30 IP) and Double-A Trenton (116 IP). As for Kennedy, the restrictions were likely off in 2008 as he threw 165.1 innings across three minor-league levels (A+ through AAA) and the majors in 2007. The final piece of the Big Three, Joba Chamberlain, was on the strictest of limits with regards to his innings because he pitched just 112.1 professional innings in ’07 (he started his season a month late on May 7th due to a hamstring injury suffered in Spring Training) as starter down on the farm and a reliever in both the minors and majors, and that was only bested by the 118.2-mark in his sophomore season at Nebraska in 2005. All things being considered-Chamberlain having experience as a reliever and Hughes and Kennedy being able to throw 170 and 200 innings, respectively-the Yankees made the correct decision by starting Hughes and Kennedy in the rotation and Chamberlain – expected to make a transition to the rotation later in the year – in the bullpen.
Unfortunately, things do not always work out the way you would like. After performing abhorrently in a twenty-two-inning sample to begin the year (5.78 xFIP, 1 K/BB and 2.14 WHIP), Hughes was placed on the disabled list for the second year in a row (hamstring injury in 2007) due to a fractured rib cage, and the 2004 first-round pick would not return until September. Kennedy’s 6.00 xFIP, 1.13 K/BB and 1.75 WHIP in his 37.2-IP sample was quite awful as well. To make matters worse, the USC product suffered a strain to his latissimus dorsi muscle (that huge back muscle) and was optioned to Triple-A Scranton after his rehab assignment – a start each in the Gulf Coast League and Florida State League – was completed; he would make his final start and second-to-last appearance as a Bronx Bomber on August 8th, a two-inning, five-run outing in Anaheim (funny, his final appearance as a Yankee – a scoreless, one-inning relief appearance in 2009 – was also in Anaheim).
Somewhat fortunately, these injuries opened a spot for Chamberlain in the major-league rotation, and the son of a Winnebago American Indian went from a bull in a china shop to a cow in the meadow before our very eyes: 2.64 FIP, 3.3 K/BB and a K% of 27 (the MLB average for a starter is 16%) in 58.2 IP that spanned June 13th through August 4th, or when he was fully stretched out as a starter in Houston until his injury in Arlington. Included in that ten-start sample was the dominating performance against Texan Josh Beckett (non-steer division) and the Boston Red Sox in Fenway on July 25th: 7 IP, 3 H, 1 BB, 9 K and a .515 WPA (his career high).
However, that start against the Rangers is where the fate of Chamberlain and Hughes would be completely altered for the next three years. Tendinitis in his right rotator cuff forced Chamberlain to the DL and although he would return to the Yankees just four weeks later, it would be as a reliever for the remainder of the 2008 campaign. So, in a season in which the Yankees planned to give Hughes 170-180 innings and Chamberlain 150-160 innings, the two highly-touted prospects pitched 69.2 and 100.1 innings, respectively.
Entering 2009, Chamberlain joined free-agent signees A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia and leftovers Andy Pettitte and Chien-Ming Wang to form one of the best rotations the organization could call their own since 2003; Hughes, cut from major-league camp just prior to the final week of March, would start the year in Scranton as the #1 replacement starter. Absolute suckitude by Chien-Ming Wang that was caused by conditioning issues regarding his hip led to an opening for the south Cali kid in the major-league rotation. A 4.96 FIP in his 34.2 IP as a starter in New York (yes, I know most of that damage came from an eight-run outing over 1.2 IP in Baltimore, but I’m not going dilute an already ridiculously small sample just to make a point) and a rushed reactivation of Wang due to an Adam Jones line-drive that hit Chamberlain’s knee versus the Orioles led to Hughes being placed in the major-league bullpen for the rest of the ’09 campaign. A healthy Chamberlain was able to hit his innings ceiling (163.2), but a starter-turned-one-inning-reliever Hughes pitched just 92.1 innings.
As we enter the 2010 campaign, the Yankees have decided to place Hughes in the major-league rotation with Chamberlain possibly headed to the bullpen. As you have read, Hughes has yet to top 116 IP in three years, and potentially would have not in 2010 if he were not placed in a rotation. On the other hand, if Chamberlain pitches the entire season as a reliever (multi-inning or not), his career high of 163.2 IP would had been reached as recently as 2009, much unlike Hughes’ career high of 146 IP that was reached nearly a half-decade ago. Essentially, the Yankees had to balance starting the year with their best twelve-man pitching staff and the best way to give Chamberlain and Hughes a chance to be unrestricted starters in 2011 and beyond. Moshe Mandel brought this point up just yesterday and I could not have agreed more.
Seeing as how the Yankees wanted to bring their twelve best pitchers with them to New York and they had to give Hughes a starter’s workload (he’s averaged about 103 innings over the last three seasons, and his innings have decreased by 15.2 from ’07 to ’08 and 8 from ’08 to ’09) just to ensure that he could be a full-time starter when Pettitte and Javier Vazquez are free agents, what other logical decision could Brian Cashman and his people have made to best facilitate this plan? Personally, I see none. The unfortunate injuries of 2008 and the favor the organization placed on winning in 2009 (i.e., making Hughes into an one-inning reliever) caused the plans for Chamberlain and Hughes to be altered quite a bit in 2010 and 2011. So, yes, I do think the Yankees have a plan and I do think it is the right one; injuries and decisions that aided a 2009 championship run just changed things up a bit.