The Yankees, with just over a month to go in the season, seem poised to call up their top pitching prospect as a reliever for the stretch run. No, this isn’t 2007 again, but in some ways, it may as well be.
In 2019, the pitching prospect who shot up the Yankees’ system is Deivi Garcia, a 20-year-old wunderkind with a heap of talent packed into a 5-foot-9 frame. Twelve years ago, it was Joba Chamberlain who captivated the imagination of entire fanbase.
So what can we learn from Chamberlain’s debut a dozen years ago? And how do his similarities and differences apply to Garcia? Those are the questions I hope to answer here, beginning with a look back at Joba’s circumstances.
Though the Yankees have called up pitching prospects late in the season in recent years, Chamberlain may be the closest pinstriped comparison for Garcia. Luis Severino, in 2015, was called up to start and bolster the rotation. Justus Sheffield didn’t appear to get serious consideration for a postseason spot in his three-game audition last year, and he didn’t debut until Sept. 19.
Garcia, meanwhile, recently converted to relief after starting the year in High-A Tampa and moving all the way up to Triple-A Scranton. That’s just about the same trajectory as Joba in 2007, when he was a 21-year-old in his first year out of college. The 6-foot-3 Chamberlain came with a different body type and background but a similar buzz.
Chamberlain pitched to a 0.38 ERA in 24 innings the rest of the season after debuting on Aug. 7, 2007. The Yankees had struggled to find a bridge to Mariano Rivera and were in the thick of a wild card race in addition to fraying hopes of chasing down the Red Sox. Though inexperienced, Chamberlain possessed upper-90s heat and a dynamite slider, a two-pitch mix that fit perfectly into the bullpen.
Chamberlain’s health was a priority; That’s how he fell to the Yankees in the 2006 draft because he was an injury risk coming out of Nebraska. You likely recall the steadfast guidelines applied to him a.k.a. The Joba Rules. Every time he pitched one inning in relief, he got a day off afterward. If he pitched two innings, he got two days off. The media made a big deal out of the Yankees’ strict approach, and Joe Torre didn’t have him pitch in back-to-back games until Sept. 26-27.
As a younger player in a smaller frame, Garcia will likely have training wheels as well. He’s pitched twice since joining the bullpen at Triple-A. After throwing two innings his first time around, he got three days off and then recorded five outs in his second appearance.
Unlike in 2007, the Yankees don’t have an urgent need for Garcia. Otherwise, they may have moved him to the bullpen quicker and had him up before Sept. 1. Though the team surely would like to see him earn a postseason roster spot, he’ll have to do just that: Earn it. He’s allowed a run in each of his two relief appearances in Scranton and hasn’t been as dominant as Joba consistently was.
The right-hander simply might not be ready for the Majors yet. Garcia has given up more home runs in Triple-A, including one in his last relief outing, and he’s on the back-end of his innings limit. The 20-year-old had already begun practicing with the MLB ball in Double-A, but actually using it in games is another task entirely.
That’s OK; Garcia doesn’t need to electrify fans right away. He’s 20. Still, he could provide the Yankees with a new multi-inning option and has four plus-potential pitches to confound Major League hitters.
Deivi won’t have the pressure placed upon his predecessor. It took all of three outings before Chamberlain got tossed into a high-leverage, late-inning spot. After a scoreless first month, he had more high-leverage spots than not and was the Yankees’ setup man. Garcia isn’t going to unseat the Yankees’ top five relievers — or top 6-7 depending on Luis Severino and Dellin Betances.
Twelve years after Chamberlain, we’re in an era where more relief innings are up for grabs, particularly if the Yankees choose to skip a Domingo German start or two down the stretch. Like Stephen Tarpley last year, Garcia might get a chance to get a back-end postseason spot with a stellar month.
The other key factor is the Joba phenomenon that took over the Bronx. He became the show, the main attraction, a fist-pumping act that captivated and delighted or disgusted everyone. There was no lukewarm enjoyment of his game, just pure love or hate as he brought emotion to the mound every other night.
Garcia has less of a runway to create that kind of buzz, though his debut would carry considerable weight. In the past 12 years, prospect coverage has only grown and we’re also talking about the Yankees Minor League Player of the Year, a strikeout machine. He’s been hailed for his poise and probably won’t bring the personality Joba did. That doesn’t mean fans won’t embrace him if he can get big outs.
If Garcia does debut next month and struggles, no problem. It’s an important taste of the Major Leagues and he can go back to starting pitching next spring with an eye towards breaking through by Summer 2020. If he excels, he still shouldn’t find himself in the extremes of October, both in terms of pressure and midges.
But Garcia’s excellence would bring questions about whether to keep him in relief. That question would only amplify if Betances and Aroldis Chapman skip town in free agency. The Yankees as an organization are in a place where they can prioritize development and push Garcia back to the Minor Leagues if they need to. Ideally, his future means heading the starting rotation, and one month in the Majors shouldn’t change that.
Any top Yankees prospect brings enormous expectations to their debut. Chamberlain was an exception, a bright-burning star who had a nearly unparalleled two months of excellence. Garcia doesn’t need to replicate that and the Yankees have the luxury to bring him along in a slower fashion, allowing him to sustain any success he achieves.