Skip to main content

The future is now

  • Author:
  • Publish date:

After all, no one loves a good fortune cookie slogan like the Bronx Bombers. For proof, one need only consult the walls outside their locker room in the team's George M. Steinbrenner Field spring training complex. They're swallowed by oversized signs proclaiming such aphorisms as "In my mind, there has never been a direct correlation between statistics and the size of a player's heart," and "God willing -- and given the chance -- let me carve my name in something bigger than a clubhouse bench," and the Ralph Waldo Emerson classic, "Do not go where the path may lead. Go where there is no path and leave a trail."

Even though they have trampled the baseball landscape for the better part of a century, the Yankees of 2008 are, nonetheless, going where there is no path; or, if there is one, it has long been untread by them. For the first time in recent memory, the Yankees did not add a big-name, big-money free agent starter in the offseason. They chose instead to entrust their present -- and the team's streak of 13 consecutive postseason appearances -- to a trio of right-handed starters for whom the team's four World Series wins between 1996 and 2000 count as ancient history.

Yet 22-year-old Joba Chamberlain, 21-year-old Phil Hughes and 23-year-old Ian Kennedy may prove to be worth the gamble. As general manager Brian Cashman noted in a quote worthy of wall space, "The hard path is to bet on the future, but that's the path I believe in."

Over the last decade, the Yankees have added a number of high-profile hurlers, including Roger Clemens (1999), Mike Mussina (2001), David Wells ('02), Jose Contreras ('03), Kevin Brown ('04), Randy Johnson ('05) and Andy Pettitte ('07). This offseason they tried to add Johan Santana to this list but failed.

Or did they?

Exercising remarkable and unusual restraint, the Yankees did not overbid for Santana, and the result is that Hughes and Kennedy, two names dangled as potential trade bait, are still in pinstripes. They and Chamberlain are expected to anchor a starting rotation that will be among the youngest in the game, and the biggest indicator yet of the team's youth movement. "It's their positions to lose," says Cashman.

Chamberlain is the closest to a proven commodity, yet he is likely to begin the season in the bullpen, both to ease the burden on an otherwise questionable 'pen and to limit his own workload. Chamberlain, who burst into the major leagues with a scintillating two-month finish to last season, is already a big enough deal that teammate LaTroy Hawkins was seen walking around in a "Joba Rules" T-shirt, an allusion both to Chamberlain's dominating debut in '07 and the unusual law that he had to be given an off-day for every inning pitched.

While Chamberlain's explosive high-90s fastball and darting slider (his only two plus pitches) make for an unbeatable presence on the mound, his fun-loving personality make for an invaluable presence in a clubhouse that is often more boardroom than locker room. He's surely the only member of the team who got nipple rings this winter (when asked why, Chamberlain simply shrugged and said "I was bored).

And no one batted an eye when a pitcher with 24 innings of big league experience entered the clubhouse and strolled lazily toward his locker on Sunday, just minutes before he was scheduled to take the field, still wiping the sleep from his eyes, and said loudly enough for half the room to hear, "Man am I tired. I hit the snooze. You should have seen the size of the drool spot on my pillow."

Chamberlain can be excused such eccentricities because a year ago he left an even bigger mark on the club than that drool spot on his pillow. He went 2-0 with a 0.38 ERA and 34 strikeouts against just six walks and emerged as the team's bridge to closer Mariano Rivera. He enters this spring again targeted for the bullpen, but it's likely he'll be starting before long. "I don't care one way or the other," says Chamberlain. "Not one guy is going to be the difference. I just want to be a part of that puzzle."

Hughes was supposed to be part of the puzzle a year ago, but a pulled hamstring suffered during his second big league start last May -- in the midst of a no-hitter, no less -- sent him to the disabled list for much of the summer. His considerable skills were never on full display, even after he returned to finish 5-3 in 13 starts. He split the winter between his native California and the Yankees' minor-league complex in Tampa, where he increased his workload from three or four days a week to five to seven days a week as spring training approached, all the while trying to ignore the persistent trade rumors.

"I was dreading something happening the whole offseason," he says. "I tried not to pay attention to it, but then my family or some high school friends would call and say, 'I saw your name on SportsCenter.' "

Scroll to Continue

SI Recommends

"I'm glad he's here," said new manager Joe Girardi. "I like looking at him everyday."

Girardi will like even better the look of a healthy Hughes. His curveball has shown extra bite, and paired with his two fastballs -- one a four-seamer in the mid-90s, the other a two-seamer -- Hughes has top-of-the-rotation stuff.

But he's still just 21 and has much to learn, which is why Mussina, an 18-year veteran, requested that Hughes' locker be moved into the near left corner of the clubhouse next to his own and Kennedy's. There Hughes and Kennedy can soak in the lessons on pitching in particular and baseball in general that Mussina has taken to doling out.

To make his young Paduan learners feel more at home, Mussina decorated the spare, gray cinderblock wall with a picture of a window looking out on a beach, and added curtains, a wall clock and a calendar. "We're going to have a sign that says Mussina, Hughes and Kennedy, Attorneys at Law," says Moose.

Such lighthearted moments were hard to come by in 2007 for Mussina, who was, by his own admission, "In a bad mood pretty much all year" thanks to a sub-par 11-10, 5.15 ERA season. His sour attitude kept Kennedy, a longtime admirer, at bay when he arrived in the Bronx last September for his big league debut.

"He's a lot more personable now," says Kennedy, "but I'd still rather wait until he asks me something" before asking questions of my own.

Not that Mussina has all the answers, however. Earlier this spring, Kennedy mustered the courage to ask the sage veteran how to throw a front-hip two-seam fastball to left-handed batters. "He said he just started doing it two years ago, so that answer didn't really help," says Kennedy.

In that case, Kennedy can always consult a video of Mussina that longtime Yankees pitching guru Billy Connors made for his benefit. Both Kennedy and Mussina are undersized control pitchers who can throw four pitches for strikes (Kennedy's are a fastball, curve, slider and changeup) and who rely heavily on location. "Some lessons you have to experience to understand," says Mussina, "[But] if they're going to do my job, they might as well learn."

One thing the Yankees still have to learn is how much they can get out of their young trio. The Joba Rules may have been relaxed but, according to Girardi, "There are three Rules now." All three pitchers are being kept to an unannounced innings limit that is unique to the individual, and while none were aware of it, Girardi said with a cryptic grin, "It's taken care of."

Hughes, who says he's preparing as though he's going to have to pitch close to 200 innings, has never topped 146 innings as a professional, Kennedy's high is 165 1/3 and Chamberlain didn't even make his pro debut until 2007. "We're trying to protect them long-term," said Girardi. "You can't expect guys to throw 200 innings if they've never done it before."

Nor have the Yankees done this before, asking so many of their pitching stars of the future to ensure their present success. Still, expectations remain the same around Tampa: World Series or bust. "Nothing's changed," says catcher Jorge Posada, when asked if the team would have to readjust its goals. "Everything's the same. They're going to be fine because we're going to help them out."

If there's anything the Yankees like displaying more than bit-sized motivational quotes, it's reminders of their past championships, which are proudly displayed throughout the Legends Field complex and the home office in the Bronx. Four of the team's 26 World Series titles and six of the 39 pennants came during Joe Torre's 12-year run as manager. Torre was fond of telling young players, "Don't take your talent for granted, because it's on borrowed time." For the Yankees ultra-talented Young Guns, their time is now.