- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Here's a bit of a shocker: Could fantasy owners owe a debt of gratitude to a Steinbrenner? What? Well, we might be thanking Hank Steinbrenner soon, because his largely inappropriate weekend tirade about how Joba Chamberlain needs to leave the bullpen and become a starting pitcher is going to make not only Yankees fans smile, but fantasy owners as well. It just won't happen overnight.
Hank wasn't lying when he opened his big mouth and eagerly told The New York Times, "You don't have a guy with a 100 mph fastball and keep him as a set-up guy." Steinbrenner called it a mistake for Chamberlain to have been moved to relief a year ago, and said he wouldn't have allowed such a move. My questions are: How much power does Big George's son have today to ensure such a move, and how soon will Chamberlain become a starting pitcher? Even if the Yankees heed his words today, Chamberlain can't start this week. His million-dollar arm would need to be stretched out in the minor leagues.
The Yankees flirted with the idea of using Chamberlain in the rotation this spring, finally announcing, to much skepticism, that Chamberlain would begin the year setting up Mariano Rivera, then have a midseason demotion to the minors to improve arm strength and prepare for life as a starting pitcher. Then he would finish the year as one of the presumptive aces and win many playoff starts, and the Yankees would look brilliant. In theory, this sounds great, and it would have the side benefit of controlling the number of innings Chamberlain threw this year. The fact that the Yankees still don't seem to have much in middle relief, unless Kyle Farnsworth can pretend home plate is Manny Ramirez's head, hasn't been brought up. What is an issue is the current state of the starting rotation, which would seem to necessitate an adjustment to the 2008 Joba rules. He does need to start.
Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes have been, without mincing words, horrible this season. It's early, and panic shouldn't ensue, but the Yankees are lucky to be 10-10 with these kids allowing 31 earned runs in 30 1/3 innings. Kennedy and Hughes are 0-5, have registered two quality starts out of seven and have really taxed the team's middle relief. Don't expect the Yankees to pull a Frank Thomas and give up on these guys, but if the team did have other options, it might not be a bad idea to let them work on their command in the minors. Hughes is only 21, and Kennedy is 23. I've watched each pitch, and think Hughes has the power stuff to be a winner, but not this season. Kennedy is a nibbler, and unlike Chien-Ming Wang, he isn't putting the ball where he wants it. Sorry, but I don't think Kennedy is ready for the majors yet. Mike Mussina has been erratic, but whether Steinbrenner realizes it or not, he's needed with the young pitchers sputtering. Down at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the top starters statistically are Kei Igawa and Darrell Rasner. Neither has the stuff Chamberlain does. In fact, few pitchers in the AL do.
Of course, Chamberlain would be most valuable to fantasy owners under two scenarios, neither of which have happened the first three weeks of the season. One, he would accrue saves. Rivera does that quite well, thank you, and that's not changing for the next three seasons. Two, Chamberlain would be a dominant starter, pile on the wins and strikeouts and look like Jake Peavy. From a fantasy baseball perspective, Chamberlain was overrated this spring, based not only on the Yankees' plan of usage, but also based on reality. Even if the guy made 30 starts, would he be a top-20 fantasy starter?
My short answer is no. He remains inexperienced, and his numbers in relief are largely irrelevant in trying to get a baseline for what he'd do as a starter. There's little in common between the two roles. Chamberlain would have to use more pitches as a starter, face hitters more than once per night, pitch without a lead once in a while and deal with a different kind of pressure. Minor league numbers aside, Chamberlain's closest current comparison might be Johnny Cueto of the Reds. Cueto has allowed 16 hits and three walks in his first four starts, spanning 26 1/3 innings, and fanned 29. Chamberlain has similarly dominant stuff, but I would never project any pitcher, young or old, to be this dominant right away.
I think a better comparison is Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals pitcher who was used exclusively in relief in 2006. By circumstance, Wainwright became the team's closer for a World Series run, and everyone rejoiced. The next season, though, the Cardinals didn't hesitate to place him in the rotation. It took time for Wainwright to blossom there, as he allowed 78 hits in his first 56 1/3 innings through May, but then he got better. His second-half ERA was 2.71 and his strikeout rate increased. Now Wainwright is a top-30 starting pitcher in fantasy. I think Chamberlain would struggle initially as a starter, much like Wainwright did, but then blossom as a reliable fantasy No. 2. Calling him a fantasy ace and top-20 pitcher is premature.
Using my colleague Christopher Harris' top-60 starting pitcher list as a guide, I wouldn't place Chamberlain in my 25 yet. I'd think Harris would rank Chamberlain among his top 60. Yovani Gallardo is his No. 25 now. I like him better, as he's more proven in the role and has strikeout potential. I'd stick with Brett Myers (No. 26), Fausto Carmona (No. 30), John Maine (No. 33) and Wainwright (No. 35) as well. Then I'd start finding a spot for Chamberlain in the 40s, but I wouldn't do it anytime soon. Brad Penny is No. 39, and we know about his awful second halves. If Chamberlain was moved right away, and began starting in a month, then I'd take him over Penny for the months July through September. Greg Maddux, Shaun Marcum and Joe Blanton show up a bit later on the list, and I'd go with Chamberlain there. Cueto himself is No. 51. I think Chamberlain can be better, ultimately, but still, I'm not going overboard. Hey, we all can dream about how good Chamberlain will be in the rotation, but the numbers don't always translate in fantasy. The Yankees need innings. Chamberlain would get wins, maybe one for every two starts. He'd get a lot of strikeouts. Are we sure his ERA and WHIP would be so dominant right away?
Chamberlain is a must-own right now on the pretense that he eventually starts, and I doubt you'll find him available in your league. He was the 158th pick in ESPN average live drafts and remains owned in 100 percent of our standard mixed leagues. Chamberlain owners have been waiting for the day he becomes a starter, so I doubt it would be cheap to acquire the guy. While I like Chamberlain's potential, I think he's going to remain overrated much of this season. He's a Yankee. East Coast bias or not, fantasy owners look at Yankees and Red Sox differently. Gallardo pitches in Milwaukee, not that most baseball fans know it. Chamberlain's value is sky high, but even if the Yankees demote him to the minors today for use as a starter, he would need a few weeks to stretch his arm out. I'm going to say Chamberlain doesn't make more than 20 starts this season, and if that's the case, there's only so much he can do to help fantasy owners. I guess we'll see what friend-of-fantasy Hank can do, but even if he gets his way, this is going to take some time before fantasy owners can enjoy it.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com fantasy. You can e-mail him here.
Eric Karabell examines the fantasy potential of Joba Chamberlain as a starter.