The Yankees' fate this season still rests in the hands of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Alex Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter, but 21-year-old fireballer Joba Chamberlain, the centerpiece of a revamped New York bullpen, is also a member of that group.
General manager Brian Cashman sees Chamberlain as a solid anchor in his ragtag bullpen, evidenced by Cashman's refusal to give up Chamberlain at the trading deadline, much like Theo Epstein guarded Clay Buchholz.
Many in the Yankees community wondered why Cashman didn't trade for Eric Gagne or Octavio Dotel as a setup man for Mariano Rivera. But if Chamberlain turns out to be the right move and the Yankees make the playoffs, Cashman's standing in New York will improve.
We know by experience that it doesn't matter whether a team wins the division; what matters is making the playoffs. Given the size of the Yankee and Red Sox payrolls, anything short of a World Series appearance is an unsuccessful season.
And is the minimum-salaried Chamberlain, a first-round pick in the 2006 draft, going to be a part of the engine that drives this $200 million-plus payroll?
Here's one American League scout's take on Chamberlain after watching him against Toronto last Tuesday:
"You take notice in a hurry. On his first pitch, it's 97 [miles per hour]. Normally a guy builds up to it. But then he gets up to 98 and he comes in with a slider at 88 or 89. You start thinking of this kid like you did when you first saw [Jonathan] Papelbon. You can see he's got that fire in his eyes.
"But he's very young, so we'll see how he reacts being in the thick of a pennant race in New York. Just watching him that first night, he seems to be able to handle things. And he was pitching against a pretty good lineup in Toronto."
As a starter at Double A Trenton, Chamberlain posted a 4-2 record with 66 strikeouts in 40 1/3 innings. After eight innings at Triple A, he was called up. He can throw a 98-m.p.h. fastball with a slider and changeup. While he has worked mostly as a starter, the Yankees want to see what he can do out of the bullpen for the remainder of the season, then decide whether they have an heir apparent to Rivera or a future Clemens.
In any event, this "electric arm," as manager Joe Torre calls him, appears to be a great improvement over Scott Proctor, who was dealt to the Dodgers.
The Yankees' potent offense will win them games, but they'll need pitching to carry them through the rough patches of the regular season, let alone the playoffs.
By staying with Chamberlain and 21-year-old Phil Hughes, who is manning the No. 5 starter's job, the Yankees decided to solve their pitching problems from within.
Cashman released lefthander Mike Myers, demoted righthander Brian Bruney, and added Chamberlain and journeyman righthander Jim Brower. The GM is betting the moves are good enough to reach the playoffs.
Clemens was right about the Yankees' chances when he signed up.
"We've got to hope to be consistent while another team stubs their toes," he said.
That other team -- the Red Sox -- haven't stubbed their toes completely, but they've tripped enough to allow the Yankees to stay relevant. The Indians and Tigers had their chances to pull away and leave the Yankees in wild-card limbo, but their recent slumps have allowed this dangerous opponent to hang around.
Cashman may head a dysfunctional management team -- owner George Steinbrenner has health issues, team president Randy Levine doesn't even have an office at Yankee Stadium, and Torre is a lame-duck manager -- but despite the confusion, the Yankees are clearly within striking distance of a 13th straight postseason appearance.
And maybe within that $200 million payroll, they have found something to keep them afloat -- a 21-year-old kid named Joba.
Calling it as he sees it
A few questions for baseball's vice president of umpiring, Mike Port, the former Red Sox executive:
There seems to be a change in the way umpires react to retaliation. Didn't it used to be the players settled the score on the field and then the umpire stepped in with a warning?
MP: "For about the past 5-7 years, there's been increased vigilance by umpires in this respect. History would seem to indicate that years ago players 'settling the matter' seemed to be more judicious than in the more recent past. It wasn't unusual for things to be held until a next series or a succeeding season, and once done, it was done. There seems to be some 'obligation' of players to resolve matters within the same game. Increased vigilance became the policy when, for some reason, people did not seem to know when to stop 'settling the matter.' "
Do you feel that incidents of retaliation have lessened over the past few years because of the consequences (suspensions and fines)?
MP: "Yes. Two years ago, no one charged the mound. Last year, it happened twice. People are increasingly realizing that umpires will control the game if they are presented with such situations. Suffice it to say the ejections relating to throwing incidents have decreased annually over the past three years principally due to the job done by umpires."
"Pitching inside" has always been the mantra of pitchers. With all of the potential fines and suspensions out there, do pitchers do less of it? Or as some scouts and officials in the game suggest, have pitchers lost the art or know-how of pitching inside effectively? MP: "Steve Palermo has phrased it best: 'It is OK to pitch inside, just don't be throwing inside.' Major league pitchers' control and abilities are generally such that if a pitch is in a wrong location in the wrong situation or set of circumstances, it probably got there intentionally."
You always hear that the guy couldn't have been throwing at him because it was a breaking pitch . . .
MP: "Are there any of those pitches, at major league speeds, that are incapable of causing injury if someone is struck in the jaw, eye, or hand? Additionally, is there some rule that says it's only possible to hit someone intentionally with a fastball?"
Recent antics were all Wells, but will they end Wells?
David Wells pushed the envelope in his outward defiance of commissioner Bud Selig and major league disciplinarian Bob Watson. Did that contribute to the Padres cutting ties with him?
Wells was 0-3 with a 14.33 in his last four outings for the contending Padres, who had to make room for the returning Chris Young, and he knew he had to step it up or he might be gone. But Wells showed signs that he was coming around last Monday, when he pitched four scoreless innings and then saw some balls trickle through the infield for runs in the fifth.
Wells has always been outspoken about his displeasure with Selig, calling him out on several topics. But recently he defied Selig by posting the disciplinary letter he had received on the wall near his locker -- though the letter specifically stated he was not to share it with anyone. He invited reporters to read the letter and copy the information.
Wells had been suspended seven games and fined $3,000 for swearing and spitting at umpire Ed Hickox in a July 7 game against the Braves. The commissioner added another $5,000 after learning that Wells had criticized Watson and posted the letter.
Wells would like to keep pitching for a contender, according to his agent, Gregg Clifton. There's an outside chance that once Wells clears waivers, another NL West team (Arizona or Los Angeles) could come calling.
"I wouldn't say he'd play for anyone," Clifton said, "but if it was a team that could win -- the Mets, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, etc. -- he would strongly consider it."
Wells was diagnosed with diabetes in spring training and lost 25 pounds "pretty quickly." But he said, "I've been gaining some weight back only because I think I lost too much too fast. It's just something I have to regulate and be careful about."
Wells has 235 victories and has been outspoken about many topics. He has been combative with umpires this season over balls and strikes. As his fastball diminishes, Wells has relied more and more on location. But if the location isn't there, he comes in too fat and gets hit.
Still, is he a guy who can help a team in a pennant race? He thinks so.
Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. What do Nationals radio broadcaster Dave Jageler and Giants radio voice Dave Flemming have in common? Besides calling Barry Bonds's record-breaking home run, they both were once the radio voice of the Pawtucket Red Sox; 2. I've been told the Nationals will not deal for Wily Mo Peña; 3. Stood in the Giants dugout one day last week wondering who had a bigger head: Barry Bonds or Giants manager Bruce Bochy? I think Bochy; 4. Old friend Pedro Gomez, who has followed Bonds for three years for ESPN, was about to take a few days off to tend to family matters. Nice of Barry to give Pedro a proper send-off; 5. Manny Acta, 38, has done a tremendous managerial job with the Nationals.
Other than Theo Epstein's signing of Hideki Okajima, Nationals general manager Jim Bowden probably made the acquisition of the year in Dmitri Young. Bowden tells of how he turned to Young, who had hit .300 for him for four years in Cincinnati, after failing to sign Carlos Peña. "Dmitri is just a great guy to have on a team," said Bowden. "He's inspirational for our young players." Young said this offseason will be devoted to managing his diabetes better. During the season, Young injects himself with insulin three times a day. "We have trainers and medical staff who monitor my blood sugar all the time," Young said. "A few times during the game it might drop too low and we're fortunate they've been there to monitor it."
A valued opinion
Tony Gwynn, when asked if Portland righthander Justin Masterson -- whom he coached at San Diego State -- reminded him of Derek Lowe: "He's much bigger than Derek. He's a battler and he's got that nasty sinker that makes it hard to elevate the ball. I follow him pretty closely. He's going to make it to the big leagues and be very successful." Masterson, who goes 6 feet 6 inches and 250 pounds, was named Eastern League pitcher of the month for July (4-0, 1.36 ERA, .134 opponents' average). "I'm really happy for him," said Gwynn. "It sounds like he's pitching great, and that's no surprise."
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com