Thursday, news broke that RHP Joba Chamberlain signed a one-year $2.5 million deal with the Detroit Tigers. After seven seasons of failed experiments with the New York Yankees, a change of scenery was much needed for the free agent reliever. Chamberlain’s story as a highly touted prospect that never quite panned out in pinstripes is reminiscent of another former Yankee pitcher, Ian Kennedy.
Both are right-handed pitchers who were drafted by the Yankees in 2006, Kennedy 21st overall and Chamberlain 41st overall. At the time there was an extreme amount of excitement about the potential seen in both of these young guys. Prior to the 2007 season, Chamberlain was listed as the fourth best prospect in the Yankees’ farm system. Later that year, Kennedy was named the 26th best prospect by Minor League Baseball. Both made their Major League debuts with the Yankees in 2007, struggled with injuries, and unfortunately never quite lived up to the hype. Both were on the team for the 2009 World Series Championship, but neither made the postseason roster.
After the 2009 season, Kennedy was sent to the Arizona Diamondbacks as part of the three-way blockbuster trade that brought Curtis Granderson to New York and sent Max Scherzer to Detroit.
Kennedy was a good player on a bad team in 2010; the Diamondbacks won only 65 games. Kennedy pitched 194 innings, posting a 3.80 ERA on the way to a 9-10 record on the year. But then, 2011 happened. The Diamondbacks ran away with the NL West, taking it by eight games over the second-place San Francisco Giants. Kennedy was the centerpiece. He pitched 222 innings, won 21 games, and posted a 2.88 ERA on the year. Yankee fans were throwing objects at their television screens all over the nation.
There is a theory among Yankee fans that some guys “just can’t hack it in New York.” The Bombers have seen players with great potential come in, either up through the system or via acquisition, only to flounder once they arrived in the Big Apple. The troubling part for the Yankees is that those same players often leave New York only to flourish in smaller markets where perhaps the pressure is lower. Is the name A.J. Burnett ringing a bell for anyone?
Yankee fans can’t be too upset. Kennedy was solid for Arizona, but he was only great for one year. He had a 3.82 ERA in four years with Arizona before being traded to the San Diego Padres this past season.
Chamberlain’s departure from New York was a bit different. He stayed with the team longer. He was shuffled between the bullpen and the starting rotation. His consistent injury struggles along with the stress of an undefined role likely took a toll on him. While Kennedy left New York via trade, the Yankees let Chamberlain go as a free agent. When he made his last appearance for the Yankees this September, everyone knew that was the end for him in New York.
I don’t know if the “can’t hack New York” theory holds water for Chamberlain, or Kennedy either for that matter. However, I do think Kennedy’s change of scenery helped him reach his potential. He would not have won 21 games in New York. Upon hearing of Chamberlain’s new home, I wondered if he too will benefit from a change of scenery. Unlike Kennedy in 2009, Chamberlain is going to a good team. It might not even take him a year to break out if he remains healthy.
I have a sinking feeling that at some point next year Yankee fans will watch Chamberlain trot out from the bullpen and pitch a lights-out, one-two-three eighth for the Tigers. Objects will be flying in the direction of TV screens all over again.