Commentary

Yankees willing to gamble on young arms

Originally Published: August 7, 2007
By Bob Klapisch | Special to ESPN.com

The path to the postseason is clear and unfettered, say the Yankees, who've made it obvious how they intend to get there: It's that nuclear offense, which is leading the American League in virtually every category. Fresh off a seven-game outburst against the White Sox and Royals, the Bombers scored 74 runs with no letup in sight.

But that's not to say the Yankees have abandoned what used to be an organizational badge of honor: the starting rotation. The addition of rookie Phil Hughes, along with the expected promotion of Triple-A right-hander Joba Chamberlain, suggests the Bombers not only still value pitching, but are willing to gamble on talented, if not inexperienced, kids down the stretch.

"Things have changed the last couple of years; you can tell by the way we've drafted and how we've got a lot of great arms now," Hughes said over the weekend. "It's only a matter of time before that talent starts knocking on the door."

Phil Hughes
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesIn his first start last Saturday since returning from the disabled list, Phil Hughes allowed six runs in 4 2/3 innings to the Royals.
The metamorphosis has already begun. After a long stint on the disabled list, Hughes replaced Kei Igawa as the No. 5 starter, getting a no-decision in the Yankees' 16-8 thrashing of the Royals on Saturday. A day later, the Bombers designated lefty reliever Mike Myers for assignment, thus creating a roster spot for Jim Brower, a righty reliever with a 1.65 ERA at Triple-A Scranton. Any day now, Chamberlain, the hardest thrower in the Yankees' system, will be summoned, too. He started the season at Class A Tampa, and has been succeeding at every level, including Triple-A, where he struck out five of the six batters he faced Saturday night.

"He can definitely light up the radar gun," is how GM Brian Cashman dryly put it. With a 98-mph fastball (and a 90-mph slider) Chamberlain has a pitching DNA to die for, although no one's saying just where and when he'll return to his natural role as a starter. For now, the bullpen is the Yankees' weakest link -- their 15 blown saves are the most in the East, and nearly four times that of the Red Sox, who stand six games ahead in the division race -- which means the 21-year-old Chamberlain will likely remain where he's most needed: in the seventh and eighth innings.

The fact that Myers was exiled after faltering against the Royals on Sunday, forcing Mariano Rivera to produce a four-out save, reveals just how seriously the front office regards the absence of a reliable set-up man. Kyle Farnsworth has been an unmitigated failure despite his 97-mph fastball, having already publicly quarreled with Joe Torre, Roger Clemens and most recently Jorge Posada. Farnsworth is averaging almost five walks per nine innings, and is being booed by Yankee Stadium crowds before he even sets foot on the mound.

Of course, the Yankees could've gone outside the organization for help. They were talking to the Rangers about Eric Gagne -- until they were told any such swap would have to include either Melky Cabrera or Ian Kennedy, the 22-year-old righty who was the Yankees' No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft. Cashman flatly said no.

"I wasn't going to pay the freight for a 20-inning pitcher and then have him [leave via free agency]," Cashman said. "Obviously, you want experienced people, but the price tag made it impossible."

Cashman believes the Hughes-Chamberlain (and now even Brower) experiments aren't quite the gambles they appear to be.

Joba Chamberlain

Chamberlain

"We've had success in the past with young players in our organization," Cashman said. "Look at [Robinson] Cano and [Chien-Ming] Wang and Cabrera."

Yet none of them arrived in the Bronx with nearly as much expectation as, say, Hughes, who's been called a young John Smoltz, or Chamberlain, who's struck out 135 batters in 88.1 innings so far.

Cashman insists "these kids aren't here to be saviors." But with the exception of Wang, the rest of the rotation is either old (Clemens is 44, Mike Mussina is 38, Andy Pettitte is 35) and expensive, or just hopelessly ineffective (Igawa and his 6.79 ERA may never be heard from again). Simply waiting for Hughes to heal from a hamstring injury, incurred during a budding no-hitter against the Rangers on May 1, might've been the Yankees' wisest decision at the trading deadline.

However, the question is: Can Hughes duplicate his early-season greatness as the Yankees begin to lean on him? The rookie will be on the mound Friday night in the opener of a critical series against the Indians, one of the teams the Yanks are battling for the wild card. So the Yankees are about to gauge Hughes' tolerance for pressure. Hughes proved he still has blow-away stuff in the wake of his injuries (he struck out four of the first seven Royals he faced Saturday). But he overdosed on adrenaline later in the game, lasting only 4 2/3 innings while allowing six runs on seven hits.

Hughes smiled and said, "I hope people don't think I'm going to throw a no-hitter every time, because obviously that's not going to happen."

But with only 50 games left, the Yankees need to know if Hughes will be ready for those late-September showdowns, when the opponents will be fiercer (and more talented) than the already-dead Royals.

It's a lot to ask of a 21-year-old, although Cashman hasn't wavered in his belief that passing on Gagne, or Jeff Conine and Sammy Sosa, both of whom were available at the 11th hour, was no mistake. That might've been the biggest gamble of all for a general manager who's already been told by George Steinbrenner that he's on "a big hook."

"We're in this thing to win it. I'm being paid to do a job," Cashman said. "Not protect it."

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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