Yankees Making New Set of Rules

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

BALTIMORE, May 26 -- Any day now, perhaps as soon as Wednesday, the door to the New York Yankees' bullpen will open and Joba Chamberlain, 22 years old and barely able to grow hair on his upper lip, will jog to the mound for what might be the final time in the middle of a game. Over the ensuing four months, he will fulfill his vast promise -- becoming the shut-down ace the Yankees are lacking and pitching the team to the playoffs -- or he and the Yankees will fall flat, touching off Armageddon in the Bronx and presumably getting some good people fired.

On Monday, the Yankees inched closer to the doomsday scenario, as their Joba-less bullpen imploded in the seventh inning of a tight game, sending them to a 6-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, snapping a five-game winning streak and once again dropping them below .500 (25-26) and into last place in the American League East.

Chamberlain, the phenom who burst into the nation's consciousness last season as a rookie setup man and seemed unstoppable against all except Cleveland's Lake Erie midges, was unavailable for duty, as the Yankees continue to manipulate his workload as a means of transitioning him from the bullpen to the starting rotation.

"It changes the dynamic of our bullpen," Yankees Manager Joe Girardi lamented following Monday's loss. "But we made the decision to make him a starter, and we're sticking to it. . . . It'd be nice to clone him -- get a couple of him, and we'd be all right."

In making the move with Chamberlain at this point -- not quite one-third of the way through the regular season -- the Yankees apparently are willing to do the following:

· Blow up the back end of their bullpen, which now boasts the combustible Kyle Farnsworth as its primary eighth-inning option, with the trickle-down leaving the likes of LaTroy Hawkins and José Veras -- the arsonists behind Monday's torching -- to handle the seventh.

· "Stretch out" Chamberlain's arm to perhaps 80 or 90 pitches, in preparation for the move to the rotation, by tossing him into the middle of a handful of big league games, rather than sending him to the minors to make the transition in peace.

· And leave themselves with a rotation that, when fully healthy, could boast three pitchers (right-handers Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes) who are 23 or younger -- something no other team in the majors, not even cheapskates like Florida and Pittsburgh, is presently willing to do.

"You can't allow yourself to think about all the ramifications and the unique circumstances," Chamberlain said Monday before the Yankees opened a three-game series against the Baltimore Orioles. "You're in the middle of a battle. You can't reflect on it. If you did that, you'd go crazy."

At the heart of the Chamberlain move -- which could be completed by next week, after the kid makes one or two more relief appearances -- is a battle between the two opposing forces that have defined the Yankees' organizational blueprint for the past nine months: The Yankees are attempting to construct a solid future, with young pitching as its foundation, while simultaneously putting everything, including $218 million of the Steinbrenner family's money, into winning a championship in 2008.

"It comes down to what is the end goal and what is going to get us to number 27," Chamberlain said, referring to the Yankees' unprecedented 26 World Series titles. "We've got a great group of guys in the front end [of the rotation] and the back end [of the bullpen], and to be looked at as helping in both aspects was definitely awesome."

The Yankees say this move was planned all along, that it had nothing to do with their May swoon and the fact their starting pitchers rank 25th in the majors in ERA. No, the Yankees say, the only question about Chamberlain was when to make the move. In essence, it was a math equation -- how to make best use of 140 innings, which the Yankees have deemed the season limit for Chamberlain's arm, perhaps the greatest long-term asset in the organization.

"This is a great young arm," Girardi said last week, "that can do a lot of different things."

One Yankees veteran suggested the decision to move Chamberlain to the rotation was cemented last October, after the Yankees, like the rest of baseball, witnessed the dominating performance of Boston's Josh Beckett. Chamberlain, the thinking goes, would be the Yankees' Beckett, their ace, their Game 1 starter. And indeed, a postseason rotation of Chamberlain, two-time 19-game winner Chien-Ming Wang, battle-tested lefty Andy Pettitte and perhaps Hughes would be formidable.

The only trick now will be getting that far. Chamberlain may yet save the Yankees' season, become their Beckett in October and dominate the AL for years to come. But for that to happen, the Yankees must make sure that by the time he takes the mound for his first inning, there is still a season to save.

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