Though it didn’t make anyone’s sports headlines in a week of Bobby Valentine’s smart-offs and the return of Jeremy Lin, what might turn out to be the biggest sports news of all is the exciting progress (measured in the increasing velocity of that once-fearsome slider, now up to 94-95 mph) of Joba Chamberlain down in Tampa.
After the 2007 hysteria when Joba burst into the majors, he was the toast of New York and the heir apparent to either Roger Clemens or Mariano Rivera, depending on the route the front office chose for him. (The office could never quite decide). And does anyone remember now that back then, we were bombarded with Native American puns and jokes about him (Joba is part Winnebago Indian) — just like the fortune cookie crap we’ve seen about Lin over the past few weeks?
If most of the last four years was something of a disappointment, let’s remember that Joba was doing pretty well last season before he blew out his arm and had to go for Tommy John surgery. His 2.83 ERA was excellent, and he struck out 24 batters and allowed just 7 walks in 28 innings. I’m going to go out on a limb here: if Joba comes back by June or even after the All-Star game — and yesterday he graduated to throwing off a full mound, so there doesn’t seem to be a reason he can’t make his comeback even sooner — the Yankees will win it all.
Chamberlain is the wild card of the Yanks’ upcoming year, the reason the team could go all the way or tank. The season will pivot on Joba’s right arm. There is just enough talent, just enough depth to absorb some injury or decline in some of the older players due to age, and Joba — if he plays up to just part of his potential — can make up for any slack.
In 1996, the Yankees won the pennant and World Series largely on the strength of two right arms in the bullpen — closer John Wetteland and set-up man Mariano Rivera — who shortened many Yankees wins to around 7 innings.
Now, with the likelihood that Mariano will pitch only one more year, the Yankees not only have to face the possibility of replacing the greatest closer in baseball history but also replace the best set-up man in baseball, Dave Robertson.
That’s because Robertson, if he continues to perform at his Rivera-like level of 2011, will certainly be the next closer. But Joba Chamberlain, if he continues his progress, is going to be that man.