The Nagging Joba Question

This morning, Steven Goldman and I had a lively conversation about whether or not the Yankees should trade Joba Chamberlain. Steve initially came at the question prepared to argue that it made sense to use Joba as trade bait while he still had some mystique about him, but a look at his peripherals changed his mind. Chamberlain has thrown 39 innings, allowed two homers (one of them the dispiritng grand slam to Russell Branyan a couple weeks back), walked 14 and struck out 43. His estimated earned run average according to BP’s SIERA is 3.27, while his FIP is 2.66, both much better than his actual mark of 5.77. The reason for the discrepancy is batting average on balls in play:

What the heck is going on, then? Well, hitters are averaging .391 on balls in play. Whether that’s a result of bad luck or bad mechanics on Joba’s part I don’t know, but I do know that it should be fixable. The stuff is still there; with the return to the bullpen, he’s letting his fastball go at higher speeds than last year, if not the 100 mph form of 2007. The things that Joba can control — walks, strikeouts, keeping the ball in the park — are still there. The rain of hits is very likely transient. The one thing we can’t say for certain is when it will end, only that it should.

Additionally complicating any trade is Chamberlain’s upcoming eligibility for arbitration. He’s making just under $500,000 this year, but that figure is going up. Few, if any, teams will want to be on the hook for a big raise given his performance so far. It’s just another reason why those that are so angry and disappointed by Joba’s performances of late had better holster their hate and count to 10; it’s going to be very difficult for Cashman to get something like real value for him right now. Battered AND expensive? That’s not going to bring a starting pitcher of position player, and as my wise Baseball Prospectus colleague Jay Jaffe says, “trading him for another reliever is a recipe for sitting next to Bill Bavasi and Dave Littlefield at the next winter meetings banquet.” The Yankees need a solid reliever, but he doesn’t want to be the guy who replaces Lou Gorman in the annual, “Which GM traded a coming star for one month of Larry Andersen?”

So please, hang up the phone. Joba is a problem, part of a bullpen gone awry, but at 24 years old and with a fastball that has averaged 94 this year, it’s spectacularly premature to give up on him. He’s not the new Rob Dibble, sorry. He’s not an ace starter. Again, sorry. He’s been through a great deal in a short career, and the least the Yankees can do — for the team, not for him — is to leave him alone and figure out what they’ve got. They should be rewarded. Now, if Jerry DiPoto is reading the same numbers I am, if his scouts are telling him that the stuff is still there, and he calls up Cashman and says, “Hey, I’ll give you Dan Haren and Justin Upton for Joba and a prospect,” you can throw the foregoing out the window, but that isn’t going to happen. Failing that, holding on is the best choice.

It’s idiotic to trade a player when he’s at the nadir of his value, and health aside, Chamberlain has been knocked down to the point. He won’t bring back a quality starting pitcher in trade, won’t bring back a quality position player. Sure, he could net a reliever or a bench bat, but for a guy who once could have been the centerpiece of a deal for Johan Santana, that’s pennies on the dollar. The Yankees broke Joba, mentally and mechanically if not physically. It’s their job to fix him while they still can.

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