Yankees preparing Joba to start
Length of righty's tenure in new role uncertain entering spring
NEW YORK -- Each time Joba Chamberlain climbs a Florida mound for an early bullpen session, he continues to do so -- for the purposes of the Yankees' preparation process -- as a starting pitcher.
Yet the Yankees are not prepared to commit to the fact that the 22-year-old right-hander will fill that role for the entire 2008 season, or even that Chamberlain can rule out being in New York's bullpen when the club opens its season on March 31.
The status of Chamberlain, who dominated American League hitters with a 0.38 ERA as a stellar setup man last season, is sure to be a scrutinized focus of the Yankees' Spring Training. With pitchers and catchers set to report to Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, there are still no answers in sight.
"All I've continued to say this winter is that he's a starter, we look at him as a starter and we're going to prepare him as a starter this spring," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said on Friday.
From that point is where matters become murky. Like projected rotation-mates Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, Chamberlain has a strict organizational innings cap -- one that the Yankees refuse to divulge publicly.
"They all have innings limits, and we will not exceed those," Cashman said.
But after Chamberlain threw only 112 1/3 innings in his first professional season, 24 of which came in the Major Leagues, Cashman admits that the Yankees will be unable to slot Chamberlain into a five-man rotation without at least getting creative.
"Because of this stage in his development, he's not going to be able to pitch for six months in the rotation without exceeding his limit," Cashman said.
Among the options the Yankees are considering, Chamberlain could pitch out of the bullpen for a period of time -- including starting the season in relief, where he could join Kyle Farnsworth and LaTroy Hawkins in helping to set up for closer Mariano Rivera.
New York could also open the year with Chamberlain in the rotation and later skip him a turn through, or adjust to accommodate him with a six-man rotation.
"All of those things are up for discussion," Cashman said. "[A six-man rotation] is not something that you want to do, but it's something you might do for a period of time."
Cashman said that Chamberlain's assignment will be a prime topic to be discussed with manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Dave Eiland later in Spring Training.
Yet nothing is assured. Chamberlain didn't even pitch competitively last year until May, missing the first month of the season with a strained left hamstring.
A similar setback for Chamberlain -- or one to another Yankees starter -- would whittle options down significantly.
"If [Chamberlain] blows a hamstring, it's less of an issue to worry about -- not that you want that to happen," Cashman said.
"If our entire staff is healthy coming out of Spring Training, he could go right to the 'pen to start the season off. If we have injuries, he'd have to start the season in the rotation. It just depends how things are going to shake out."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.