The Mets and Yankees Seek an Armed Revolution

How Joba Chamberlain and Johan Santana will make us forget last year's miserable baseball legacy

Chamberlain is blessed with a torrid, hopping, 100-plus-mph fastball and a slider that breaks down with such force that, according to last year's pitching coach, Ron Guidry, "when you don't get good wood on it, it feels like you've just whacked a bowling ball with a broomstick." This year's pitching coach, Dave Eiland, and special pitching instructor, Rich Monteleone, have been working with Joba to try and develop a curveball and a changeup to his arsenal—the latter a pitch that can be devastating for a pitcher with a great fastball and slider, as hitters who have faced Santana can testify.

But why does a reliever need four pitches? Clearly, the repertoire that the Yankees are planning for Joba is that of a starting pitcher, and just as clearly, that is where his greatest value to the team is. If the Yankees don't take that plunge this year, how much of the season is Joba destined to spend sitting in the bullpen, wondering how he's going to make a difference in a game that the Yankees are already losing by two or three runs in the fifth inning? Last year, the front office had to impose the Joba rules on Joe Torre when it came to the care and handling of the team's most valuable young asset: not using him on consecutive days, not bringing him in in the middle of an inning, etc. For now, it's not clear what the new Joba rules are, or who—manager Joe Girardi, GM Brian Cashman, or Hank Steinbrenner—will be making them.

For that matter, it isn't clear why Johan Santana isn't a Yankee. The players that the Mets gave up to acquire one year of Santana's services were outfielder Carlos Gomez, a 21-year-old outfielder who hit .232 with two home runs last year; Philip Humber, a 25-year-old who pitched just three games for the Mets in 2007, with an ERA of 7.71; 22-year-old pitcher Kevin Mulvey, who appeared in 26 games in AA minor-league ball in 2007; and Deolis Guerra, a 19-year-old who was 2-6 for the St. Lucie Mets last year. There are no apparent blue-chippers in that quartet. If the Mets could get Santana for those four, why couldn't the Yankees close the deal when they were ready to offer Hughes, Kennedy, and Melky Cabrera?

No time for a slow hand, Johan. Santana must be great, like, now.
Marc Levine/New York Mets
No time for a slow hand, Johan. Santana must be great, like, now.
How soon does Joba go from reliever to starter?
G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images
How soon does Joba go from reliever to starter?

A source in Minnesota who asked not to be quoted told me: "The Twins overplayed their hand on this one. They were playing all the time to get Joba, but the Yankees wouldn't budge. When it came down to the wire, all they could get were four frankly inferior prospects from the Mets." But if the Twins were willing to settle for that kind of deal from the Mets, why couldn't they at least have picked up the phone and inquired as to whether the Yankees might still be willing to offer a package that included Kennedy or Cabrera? "That's a good question," said the source. "They may have and found that the Yankees were no longer receptive."

And why, one wonders, would that be? Surely not because giving up Kennedy or Cabrera or both wouldn't be a reasonable price to pay for baseball's best starter. Some said that signing Andy Pettitte made Santana less essential, but it's hard to believe that Pettitte, at age 36 and with a history of injury, canceled out the need for a starter of Santana's quality. Anyway, the Yankees had Pettitte last year and still finished in second place in the AL East.

At a time when Yankee revenues appear to be at an all-time high, the front office, it seems, didn't want to spring for the $130-odd million they knew it would take to sign Santana to a long-term contract after 2008. A popular term dropped by Cashman and Hank Steinbrenner in interviews was "fiscal responsibility"—a phrase that, in the words of Marvin Miller, first executive director of the Players Association, "translates into English as 'lower salaries.' " Some have speculated that Hank's younger brother Hal—the Yankees' general partner, but also chairman of the board of Yankee Global Enterprises—had his eye on the profit margin, and so was strongly against a huge, multi-year contract for Santana or anyone else. If this is true, his logic is as easy to figure as the math: With a new stadium full of luxury boxes and fewer seats (and higher prices for them), the organization is pretty much assured of sellouts at most games starting in 2009. Why take a chunk out of profits with big salaries when the profits are already guaranteed?

The front office put out a great deal of propaganda about wanting to win with homegrown talent, and since the farm system has been woefully neglected until recently, that seems to make sense—so long as you invest the same money in your farm system that you were willing to pay out for high-priced talent. And, the argument goes, the Yankees have been burned in recent years in acquiring high-salaried big names such as Randy Johnson, Jaret Wright, Tony Womack, Kyle Farnsworth, Carl Pavano, Jason Giambi, and, last year, Roger Clemens. But Johan Santana isn't 41, as Randy Johnson was when he came to the Yankees in 2005, or 44, like Clemens last year, or prone to physical breakdowns like Wright. There are no sure things when it comes to the gamble of a six-year contract, but Santana is the best bet in the game.

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