Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain: The Aces That Never Were

About six or seven years ago, the Yankees had one of the most improved minor league systems in baseball, thanks to a new commitment to growing young talent by general manager Brian Cashman. He wanted to try to keep the team competitive by growing arms and bats in the place of the usual expensive acquisitions they would have otherwise made.

The cream of this crop was a 20 year old right-handed from Southern California, a first round pick in the 2004 draft. At the same time, another 20 year old out of Lincoln, Nebraska was taking the minor leagues by storm and only made it to the big leagues only a year after being drafted. Their names were Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, and they were the face of what was supposed to be a new era of Yankee baseball, one that would focus on improving and sustaining the franchise through a surplus of young talent for years to come. Chamberlain and Hughes would be the centerpiece for this new golden era.

Chamberlain, armed with a high 90s fastball and a devastating slider, became an instant rock star in his debut in 2007, showing mortality only in the infamous bug game in Cleveland in the ALDS. He would make his move to the rotation in 2008 and dominated until injuring himself in August.

Hughes struggled in his first three years in the big leagues as a starter, but found a home in Joba’s old role, the bullpen as Mariano Rivera’s 8th inning set-up man for the 2009 World Champions. At the same time, Chamberlain struggled and labored through the 09 campaign thanks to an innings limit that routinely forced him to exit early down the stretch and almost blew Game 4 of the World Series.

In the 2010 season, Hughes beat out Chamberlain for a rotation spot and took the AL by storm, winning 18 games and earning an All-Star appearance in Anaheim. Chamberlain struggled in a role he once dominated, and lost the set-up job to David Robertson, the likely successor to Rivera next season. Hughes struggled down the stretch and was light up twice in the ALCS to Texas.

For the next three years, both pitchers continued to struggle. Chamberlain was forced to get Tommy John surgery in 2011 and has never been the electric reliever he once was. In fact, even worse. Hughes struggled with a “dead arm” in 2011, won 16 games in an up-and-down 2012, and has struggled big time with a 4.99 ERA this year. Both are free agents this winter, but it is unlikely either will make a good pay day, and the Yankees probably will not bring either back.

Alas, the two pieces of what should have been the feature stars of a new age of Yankees baseball, their own version of John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, never panned out and busted, after all the signs of talent  and the nasty stuff they once had. Why did this happen? It’s not like they weren’t good enough. They were. Injuries had a lot to do with it, as Hughes pulled his hamstrings in his rookie year while pitching a no-hitter in Texas and suffered a dead arm in 2011, same year Chamberlain had Tommy John.

But you know what, this one’s on the Yankees front office.

Ever since Chamberlain came up, you’ve probably heard the phrase “Joba Rules” repeated several times, referring to how the team would use him. In 2008 they kept him in the bullpen until there was a need for starting pitching, and still tried to keep him under wraps, like limiting his innings. In 2009 it really hit the fan when they decided to put an innings limit on him.  Through the end of July he was 7-2 with a 3.58 ERA and was finally starting to pitch more effectively. But then manager Joe Girardi and GM Brian Cashman began to put an innings and pitch limit on him. In his last nine starts, he never threw over 100 pitches and only pitched into the sixth inning. His ERA ballooned to 4.75 that season and that was the end of Joba Chamberlain as a starting pitcher.

The Yankees never learned their lesson with Joba, as Hughes’ effectiveness as a pitcher waned when they tried to coddle him, and many of the Yankees’ more recent former top pitching prospects like Manny Baneulos and Dellin Betances have gotten hurt or pitched so ineffectively as a starter they had to become a reliever. Heck, look at the Nationals and how well their team has done since the 2012 playoffs after shutting down Stephen Strasburg. It’s understandable that teams do not want to force their young arms too hard as fledgelings, but their conservative handling of them can often hurt them anyway.

If the Yankees are going to get back to being World Series contenders, they need to be less conservative with any future young arm that climbs his way through the minors. Otherwise, they’ll just be another huge waste of talent like Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes.

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