Joba, Hughes take first steps in competition
Girardi preaches that fifth-starter job won't be won first day
TAMPA, Fla. -- The competition between friends began innocuously Friday, when Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain climbed upon adjacent mounds, firing fastballs and changeups to adjacent targets.
Afterward, they stood in front of nearly adjacent lockers and made small talk, as if neither were gunning for the lone open spot in the Yankees' starting rotation.
"I don't think any jobs are going to be awarded on our [bullpen sessions]," Hughes said afterward.
"You're not going to win the job today," Chamberlain agreed. "But what you do today is going to dictate what you do tomorrow and the day after."
Eventually, Hughes and Chamberlain will progress to full bullpen sessions, utilizing all of their pitches, then to live batting practice and game action. All the while, manager Joe Girardi and his coaches will watch, looking to see whose fastball has more pop, whose breaking ball has more snap.
And then they will make the decision that could change the course of either man's career.
"As much as I say it's not going to be won the first day, he's still standing there," Hughes said of Girardi. "You want to make some impressions."
That's why Girardi made a point this spring to discourage his two young pitchers from competing too fiercely, too quickly. There will be time for that when Grapefruit League games begin next month.
For now, there are bullpen sessions.
Both Hughes and Chamberlain threw 30 pitches in their sessions on Friday morning, sticking to fastballs and changeups on Girardi's orders. Hughes threw 12 changeups in his session, a sign of things to come this spring -- he's working on developing that changeup into a legitimate third pitch, which he and Girardi feel the righty needs as a starter.
Chamberlain, who spent almost all of last year as a starter -- and who therefore relied much more on his secondary pitches -- is more advanced in that regard. And so he had to fight the urge, with Girardi standing behind him, to put a little extra zip on his fastballs.
Yes, Girardi told both Hughes and Chamberlain not to compete with each other this early in the spring. But as Hughes said, he's still standing there.
"He was a competitor himself," Chamberlain said. "If someone told him that, he'd probably let it go in one ear and out the other."
"It probably is human nature, but you can fight it as much as possible," Hughes said.
For Hughes, this spring may alter the progression of his entire career. If he loses the fifth-starter competition, he will either join the bullpen as a setup man or head back down to Triple-A. Either way, the former first-round Draft pick would enter his mid-20s without much significant Major League starting pitching experience.
For Chamberlain, a loss to Hughes would almost assuredly result in a career in the bullpen. He has already proven his worth there on multiple occasions. And the Yankees are committed to making a final decision on Chamberlain, one way or the other.
They are also committed, regardless of the outcome, to feature both men on their pitching staff for years to come. In what capacity is all that remains to be seen.
"I love it," Chamberlain said. "I wouldn't have it any other way for our team. Pushing each other makes the team better."
And the competition, Girardi insists, will not hurt. As long as he can convince his young pitchers to stay in control these first few weeks of Spring Training, both should thrive.
And Girardi's presence, constantly eyeing both of them, should not add any pressure.
"It shouldn't," Girardi said. "They pitched in the World Series last year with a lot of people standing behind them."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.