As the exhibition season opens March 3 against the Pirates, the New York Yankees will have few spots available on the 25-man roster but there will be a number of important battles for jobs. There is a big battle for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, a contest for a starting outfield spot (left or center), some fights for bullpen spots and a real donnybrook for bench spots. Let’s look at them and handicap how they might go this spring.
BATTLE NO. 1 – No. 5 Spot in Rotation
The candidates are Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Alfredo Aceves, Chad Gaudin and Sergio Mitre.
Manager Joe Girardi insists that Aceves, Gaudin and Mitre will be given a chance to win this spot but most Yankee insiders believe he is just being politically correct. The real battle for the fifth spot likely will come down to Chamberlain and Hughes.
Chamberlain, 24, has started 43 games for the Yankees and has the advantage of knowing that the so-called “Joba Rules” are over. Chamberlain can pitch 200 innings this season since he pitched 157 innings last season.
However, Chamberlain did not pitch well as a starter in 2009. He was 9-6 with a 4.75 ERA and a horrifying high WHIP of 1.54. When the Yankees made the postseason Chamberlain was shifted to the bullpen and the Yankees completed their world championship run with just three starters.
Chamberlain, however, showed flashes of his former brilliance and velocity in the setup role, completing the postseason with a 1-0 record, a 2.84 ERA and seven strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings of work in 10 appearances.
This led some Yankee insiders to conclude that Chamberlain may be of more value to the Yankees as a reliever than a starter. The trade for right-hander Javier Vazquez from the Atlanta Braves may actually be a huge signal of how this battle will go. Until the trade was made, Hughes and Chamberlain were both slated as starters.
Now only one of the two will get the job.
The 23-year-old Hughes, on the other hand, seemed to struggle early as a starter with the Yankees in 2009. In six starts he was 2-2 with a 6.59 ERA. But once he moved into the bullpen he steadily got better and better. In 44 appearances out of the bullpen he sported a 5-1 record with a 1.43 ERA (an ERA even lower than Mariano Rivera’s 1.76) with 65 strikeouts in 50 1/3 innings. He also had three saves in six opportunities.
But then came the postseason and Hughes fell off markedly. He was 0-1 with a 8.53 ERA and a 2.37 WHIP. For whatever reason, Hughes’ confidence was not there in the postseason and it showed. But Girardi has always insisted that Hughes was a starter.
He will now get the chance to prove that this spring.
One big caveat is that the “Joba Rules” will now apply to him. Including the postseason, Hughes pitched 92 1/3 innings last season and so the Yankees would like to limit him to about 142 innings this season.
That means if he wins the No. 5 spot he likely will not finish the season in the rotation or will be limited to three- and four-innings starts like Chamberlain was limited to in 2009. Or the Yankees could call on a spot starter like Chad Gaudin to take over as the No. 5 starter at the All-Star break and Hughes would join Chamberlain in the bullpen the rest of the way.
It is an intriguing thought considering the Yankee bullpen would be loaded with strikeout pitchers like Rivera, Chamberlain, Hughes and David Robertson. That would be really scary to American League teams.
Gaudin is a longshot to win the competition but nevertheless has shown some ability as a starter in the past. As a full-time starter with Oakland in 2007, Gaudin was 11-13 with a 4.42 ERA. He struggled, however, as a starter with the San Diego Padres in 2009. He was 4-10 with a 5.13 ERA when the Yankees acquired him in August.
But pitching coach Dave Eiland worked with Gaudin and Gaudin responded with a 2-0 record and 3.43 ERA in 11 appearances, including six spot starts, with the Yankees. Gaudin, 26, has proven to be valuable as a swingman throughout his career. That is why it looks like he won’t win the No. 5 job but will be a top candidate for the long relief spot in the bullpen.
Should Hughes win the No. 5 spot, he could easily slide into the rotation as a starter to replace Hughes. So Gaudin enters this spring with a lot of inherent value to the Yankees.
Alfredo Aceves, 27, moved quickly through the Yankees minor-league system as a starter after he was signed from out of Mexico. Aceves even was a candidate for starting rotation spot after his 1-0 record with a 2.40 ERA in six appearances in 2008.
However, with the Yankees locked into five starters last spring, Aceves was merely considered as a long reliever and he did not make the team out of spring training. But after pitchers like Jose Veras and Edwar Ramirez faltered and Brain Bruney and Damaso Marte were injured, Aceves quickly earned a spot in the bullpen last season.
Because the Yankees showed an ability as a come-from-behind offense, Aceves was the benefactor, leading all major-league relievers with a 10-1 record and 3.54 ERA. If it not for a tired arm that plagued him in July and August he would have had a considerably lower ERA.
Aceves has virtually no chance of winning the No. 5 spot but he could factor into the bullpen mix. Although he is not a strikeout pitcher, Aceves shows exceptional ability of mixing his pitches and keeping hitters off balance with his off-speed stuff.
Though the signing of Chan Ho Park as free agent will make it tougher on Aceves to make the team, Girardi seemed to trust him and Aceves is capable of pitching more than two innings, if needed.
If he does not make the team out of spring training he could be sent back to Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre to work as a starter there. That would make him valuable as a possible replacement as a starter or reliever as the season moves along.
Mitre, 29, has a very tall order ahead of him. After a so-so 2007 season with the Florida Marlins (5-8 with a 4.65 ERA), Mitre missed the entire 2008 season because of Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
He came back earlier than expected and was signed by the Yankees on the recommendation of Girardi, his former manager with Florida. But Mitre underwhelmed in his nine starts and finished the season with a 3-3 mark and a bloated 6.79 ERA.
His trademark sinker was inconsistent and teams feasted on his mediocre fastball. Last season, Mitre could blame the fact he was still recovering from the surgery. But this spring there will be no such excuses.
Mitre is going to have to really impress the Yankees to even make the team. He has virtually no realistic chance at the No. 5 job. The best he could hope for is to make the team as a long reliever, and it would seem that Gaudin and Aceves have the better chance to fit there.
So Mitre’s best hope is pitch his hindquarters off to force the Yankees to keep him as a starter in Triple A. The real likelihood is he will be released much like the team did with Dan Giese the previous spring.
NEXT POST: BATTLE NO. 2 OUTFIELD (Brett Gardner vs. Randy Winn)