Brian Cashman finally ended the Joba debate yesterday by calling the starting experiment over. Ben Kabak does a great job summing up what went wrong, and the internet is rife with people explaining how the Yankees should have handled matters. However, it seems that some of those opinions are based on hindsight, as I seemed to remember a lot more support for the actions that were taken by the Yankees as things unfolded. I decided to go back through the RAB archives (TYU is not old enough to cover it all) to try and reconstruct all of the twists and turns of the Joba saga.
The Yankees moved Joba into the bullpen in the summer of ’07, and the initial reaction from Ben was that it was not a great move for Joba’s development. However, after letting the idea ferment for a few days, Ben and the commenters became more comfortable with the idea, as Joba would help the big league club without Joe Torre being allowed to destroy him.
In October, the Yankees reaffirmed their stance on Joba being a starter, but November brought Joba to the bullpen debates and the Johan Santana question. When December rolled around, the Yankee plan to limit Joba’s innings by starting the season with him in the bullpen came into view. This idea was met with concern that he would never end up in the rotation, but Ben wrote that if it was in fact being done to limit his innings, it would not be a terrible move.
Reports then surfaced that Joba would prepare in Spring Training to start but would actually begin the year in the pen. He would then remain in the bullpen until June, after which he would be stretched out and moved to the rotation while some other relievers stepped up and seized the 8th inning. Joe dubbed this plan ideal, and I recall feeling the same way at the time. Joba finished spring training with some quotes that worried the Joba-to-rotation crowd, talking about how much he enjoyed relieving again.
The 2008 season began with some fistpump drama, followed by Joba leaving the team to tend to his ailing father. Hank then popped off and said that Joba should be in the rotation, and that he would absolutely be moved there later in the season, a comment that was met with glee by many Yankees fans. Converesely, Johnny Damon suggested that the players wanted to see Joba stay in the pen. As May rolled around, RAB speculated that promotions to AAA for JB Cox and Mark Melancon may be part of a strategy to have someone ready to take Joba’s place when he moves to the rotation.
On May 21st, the Yankees allowed Joba to throw 35 pitches, and then announced that the process of stretching him out had started. The Yankees stretched him out fairly quickly, as he made his first start two weeks later. While RAB highlighted a commenter who felt the process was rushed, Ben concluded that the team appeared to know what they were doing with him. By June 14th it seemed that Joba had settled into the rotation, and looked to be on pace to finish with 150-160 innings.
All was right with the Joba world until August 4th at Texas, when he was removed from the game with stiffness in his pitching shoulder that was later diagnosed as rotator cuff tendinitis. Buster Olney reported that Dr. James Andrews told the Yankees that he did not believe it was a long-term problem, but other Yankee writers were not as optimistic.
In mid-August, the Yankees announced that Joba would return in early September and return to the bullpen, an announcement that Ben was uncomfortable with, wondering whether pitching in the pen put extra stress on Joba’s arm. The Yankees then announced that the injury meant Joba would once again be on an innings limit in 2009, but intimated that he might start for the entire season and then be skipped as necessary, which Brin Cashman later confirmed. As all of this talk was going on, Joba’s velocity was down, but Joba insisted that he was fine.
The offseason began inauspiciously, as Joba was arrested for DUI and subsequently apologized. The Joba debate continued to roil among the media and fans, but the Yankees were very clear that he would be starting. The conversation shifted to how many innings Joba might throw, and his health was questioned when he was only throwing 88-89 in his first ST outing. His velocity improved as the spring continued, but there were still some concerned with his stilted mechanics and diminished velocity. Jorge Posada was not one of them, as he finally ditched the Joba to the bullpen camp.
Joba was very good in his final spring outing, and looked strong in his first start of the regular season as well. Joba’s velocity was still a concern, but it seemed to be increasing as April progressed and those at RAB were not very concerned.
May saw Joba become embroiled in a fistpump controversy with Aubrey Huff, get hit on the knee by a comebacker, and struggle a bit to stir up the old bullpen debate, but otherwise the only interesting issue of the month was the beginning of the discussion on how to limit Joba’s innings. The Yankees continued to insist that Chamberlain’s shoulder was not an issue, despite the fact that he had lost 3mph on his fastball. His pitching began to decline, he made some silly comments about the sun continuing to come up, and by early July Mike wrote that he needed to be sent to the minors because he was mentally unprepared for the spotlight, and it was later revealed that the organization did consider it. Brian Cashman was asked about Joba’s innings limit and stated that Joba would not be shut down or sent to the minors, leading Joe to surmise that he would be moved to the bullpen.
Joba strung together a number of strong starts after the All-Star break, and it looked as if he had turned a corner. On August 12th, the Yankees revealed their plan for Joba, stating that they would be skipping him or giving him extra days of rest from time to time. Ben counseled us to trust the decision, noting that the team knew better than we did whether Joba could handle it. Joe agreed and concluded that although he did not like how they had handled Joba in 2007 and 2008, the Yankees were handling him well in 2009. However, Joba began to struggle mightily, and some fans started to rip into how the Yankees were dealing with Joba. On August 28th, after further ineffectiveness, the Yankees announced that Joba would pitch every five days but that the outings would be shortened. The move was largely supported in the comments, and Joe noted a few days later that there were not many alternatives.
The new plan did not produce better results, and Joba’s struggles were bad enough that RAB contemplated whether he should be shut down, moved to the bullpen, or be removed from the playoff rotation. Joba pitched well against Boston in his penultimate start of the season, but looked bad in his final start and was moved to the bullpen for the final game of the season and postseason. Joba was not great in the bullpen but showed hard enough stuff to restart the Joba-to-the-pen debate.
The Yankees announced that Joba was done with innings limits, but the club did not tell Joba what his role would be for the upcoming season. People began to wonder whether one of Joba or Phil Hughes would remain in the bullpen, and Joba stated that he was going to show up early and assume that he was competing for a rotation spot. Although it seemed that Joba had a leg up on his competition, rumblings began to surface that he was in fact the favorite to end up in the bullpen. By mid-March most of the candidates had pitched well, but the growing sentiment was that Phil Hughes would get the fifth spot. On March 24th, Joel Sherman reported that Phil had in fact won the job and that it was his to lose all along. Joba was headed for the bullpen rather than AAA, something that Ben and many others bemoaned (Mike did support it). Brian Cashman did not close the door on a return to the rotation for Joba, calling him “a starter in the bullpen,” but Billy Eppler put a damper on that by suggesting the organization as a whole saw Joba as a reliever. The 2010 season was an uneven one for Joba. He looked quite ordinary at times despite strong peripherals, lost his 8th inning job, and was involved in trade talks for Dan Haren.
I do not want to draw any conclusions here, as the purpose of this exercise was to recount the whole tale and try and recall how we felt about decisions at the time. I will say that the reactions in the comments to certain moves by the Yankees were a lot tamer at the time than they are now, with the benefit of hindsight. The Yankees walked a difficult tightrope with Joba and ultimately fell off. That does not mean that every step taken along the way was an egregious error.