Joba Chamberlain’s Spot Not Guaranteed With Yankees

How far in the eyes of the Yankees and baseball in general has Joba Chamberlain fallen?

The once-ballyhooed righty has avoided arbitration by agreeing to a 1-year contract worth $1.875 million; interestingly the contract is non-guaranteed. It’s a strange and unfamiliar choice on the part of the Yankees not to guarantee a deal for such a comparatively paltry amount considering some of the other players on their roster and that their self-enacted payroll constraints won’t come into effect until 2014. If they’re going to be successful this season, they’re going to need Chamberlain. The departure of Rafael Soriano and the age and status of Mariano Rivera—returning from significant injury—make Chamberlain a necessity and not a luxury.

In years past, the Yankees have been perfectly willing to spend (and sometimes waste) money on pitchers rehabbing from injuries with an eye on them contributing in the future even if that future wasn’t until the next year. They did it relatively successfully with Jon Lieber; unsuccessfully with Octavio Dotel; and the grade is still pending on David Aardsma. Have the Yankees’ cost-cutting hopes reached a level where they’ll be willing to cut Chamberlain to save the bulk of his salary with termination pay if he pitches poorly in spring training? Because that’s what this means. Below is the relevant clip from the basic agreement:

(T)he contract is not guaranteed, so if the player is released during Spring Training, the club would only owe the player 30 days or 45 days salary as termination pay, depending on when the player is released. (A player on an MLB 40-man roster receives 100% of what remains of his salary if he is released during the regular season).

The Cliff Notes version boils down to Chamberlain trying out in spring training and if he pitches poorly, they’ll dump him.

Chamberlain, while being a minuscule fraction of what he was supposed to be, is at the very least a serviceable relief pitcher who, conceivably, could close if Rivera is unable, leaving David Robertson to do the hard work as the set-up man. He has very little value on the trade market unless the Yankees pay a chunk of his salary and take another club’s similar player. If they start offering him around, teams will just wait until the Yankees terminate the deal and go after Chamberlain as a free agent.

It would be understandable if Chamberlain hadn’t pitched last season—as he wasn’t expected to after his accident in spring training in which he injured his ankle—but he returned far sooner than expected from both the ankle injury and 2011 Tommy John surgery and was an important member of the bullpen late in the season. He pitched very well in September as the Yankees were in an unexpected dogfight to make the playoffs. Now he’s fallen to unforeseen depths as a step above a non-roster invitee.

It seems so long ago that the debate regarding Chamberlain’s optimal role had grown so fierce with one side insisting that his dominance out of the bullpen was more valuable than any slightly better-than-average performance he’d be able to provide as a starter and screamed with violent intensity to hammer home the point. The Yankees jerked him around commensurately with the indecision, spurred by their own wishy-washiness on what he was and where he was best-suited to pitch. They played an overwhelming part in his destruction.

That the Yankees are mostly responsible for his ruination has been rendered irrelevant. In recent years Chamberlain had become an annual name on the most-overrated list in polls of other players. He’s no longer overrated. In fact, judging by the non-guaranteed contract, he’s not rated at all. He’s just sort of there and might not be there for very long. That’s a far cry from having been compared to Roger Clemens for those magical two months in 2007 when it appeared that the hype, for once, was real.

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