On Baseball: Once the Yankees’ Future, a Big Three Settle for the Present

“They’re three different guys, not like Syndergaard, deGrom and Harvey — all of them are coming out of the gates pumping 97 at you. That’s a whole other ballgame, those three. They’re all giants, too. The game’s just changing. These guys, I don’t know how they do it.”

Chamberlain has an idea. After his overpowering relief cameo in late 2007, he began the next year as the game’s No. 3 prospect, as ranked by Baseball America. Below him in the top 10 were Clayton Kershaw and David Price.

The New York spotlight fed the hype, but Chamberlain’s 2007 statistics could not be ignored: one earned run in 24 carefully spaced innings, with 34 strikeouts and six walks. “Joba Rules” was a T-shirt slogan that accurately summed up his power, while playing off the Yankees’ strict guidelines for his usage.

Photo
From left, Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy, Shelley Duncan and Phil Hughes during the Yankees’ rookie hazing day in 2007.

Credit
Uli Seit for The New York Times

“It all happened so fast,” Chamberlain said. “Looking back, my son’s 10 now — he was 1 then. I feel like it was yesterday and I feel like it was 30 years ago.”

In 2008, Chamberlain pitched mostly from the bullpen, with 12 starts wedged among 30 relief appearances. In 2009, he started for six months before pitching in relief in the playoffs and the World Series. It was back to the bullpen in 2010, then to the operating table in 2011, for Tommy John surgery. The Yankees let him leave after the 2013 season, when his E.R.A. was 4.93.

“I was, necessarily, the guinea pig — which I’m O.K. with,” Chamberlain said. “They were trying to protect me, and I blew out anyway. Innings, doing all these restrictions, that’s going to be a topic around baseball for as long as baseball goes.”

Chamberlain is proud of his perseverance, as are Hughes and Kennedy. On Twitter, Hughes said, fans sometimes call him a failure, which never makes sense to him. Sure, Hughes said, he is not going to the Hall of Fame. But isn’t there something in between?

There is, and that is where the careers of Hughes and Kennedy have settled: into that very lucrative space in the market for a reliable veteran starter.

Kershaw and Price are perennial All-Stars earning $30 million or more per season. But the pitchers in the tier below can also live comfortably, probably for the rest of their lives. Hughes is in the second season of a five-year, $58 million contract. Kennedy is starting a five-year, $70 million deal. Hughes has three seasons with at least 16 victories. Kennedy has six seasons in a row with at least 30 starts.

Kennedy was 9-15 for San Diego last season, but he averaged more than a strikeout per inning for the second year in a row. A Padres coach, Darren Balsley, helped him separate his hands quicker in his delivery, giving him time to pull through the ball with more force. His curveball, he said, is harder and sharper than ever.

The contract was Kennedy’s reward for durability. But achieving it was much harder than he thought it would be when he joined the Yankees.

“You’re surrounded by guys who had 10, 12-plus years, future Hall of Famers,” Kennedy said. “You’re like, I’m playing with these guys, this is who I am. Then you play long enough, and you play with other teams — like, I went to the Diamondbacks, and you look at this broad scope of the league itself and you realize it’s really not that easy to do that. I took it for granted before.”

Chamberlain could relate. Last season would seem to have been trying for him. After the Detroit Tigers released him in July, he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, who released him in August after seven games at Class AAA Buffalo. Then he pitched for the Royals’ Omaha farm team, before his promotion.

Photo
Joba Chamberlain, left, and Phil Hughes in the heady, fresh-faced days of 2007, after the Yankees clinched a playoffs spot.

Credit
Steve Nesius/Reuters

Except for injury rehabilitation, Chamberlain had not pitched in the minors since 2007. Returning there, he said, made him absorb the lesson that Kennedy understood.

“Last year’s probably the best year I ever had — that’s the God’s honest truth,” Chamberlain said. “Seeing some of these guys in Triple-A who played seven or eight years there and maybe had a month in the big leagues, you appreciate the fact that you’ve had an opportunity to play for this long. It’s not easy.”

Even with his service time, a long-term jackpot has been out of Chamberlain’s reach. He looks great, having lost 20 pounds since last season and throwing 97 miles an hour. But while Indians Manager Terry Francona said, “We didn’t get him here to help our Triple-A team,” he would not commit to putting Chamberlain on the roster.

Chamberlain is pitching on a minor-league contract and has earned less than $10 million in his career. He is doing just fine, he said, but cannot help noticing the difference in earning power for the starter he once seemed destined to be.

“I do look at it,” Chamberlain said. “I think about it all the time. But at the same time, why be bitter? It made me who I am. If that would have been the instance, would I have turned out to be the person I am today? Probably not. It just taught me so much more, and I’m very thankful for that.

“But, yeah, you see it. I’m happy for Hughsie, I’m happy for Ian. But at the same time, I didn’t have the same opportunity they did.”

Blaming the Yankees, all these years later, is pointless. They wanted the best for Chamberlain; why would they not? His story, he insisted, is far from finished, and what better place to revive his career than Cleveland, where midges once swarmed him in a playoff game?

Like the others, Chamberlain is not a superstar, and may never be. But he is still pitching. Before the Mets’ starters can join the pantheon of greats, they must first last as long as he has.

“Hopefully, they can sit here and have a conversation in 10 years about their career and the things that they’ve done,” Chamberlain said. “It’s going to be about the ups and the downs, and how you handle it.”

Failure is coming — in some form. It does for everybody. Chamberlain does not know the Mets’ pitchers, but he likes to watch them work, and wishes them well. He hopes they have savored their moment.

“You’re not going to get a chance to be a rookie again and be the guy that you were,” he said. “Move on, learn from it and be better for it.”

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