Joba begins process of joining rotation
Reliever to increase pitch count, will start later this season
NEW YORK -- The process for Joba Chamberlain's transition to the rotation officially began on Wednesday, but the seeds were actually planted eight months ago, two decks above the playing field at Yankee Stadium.
It was then that Yankees general manager Brian Cashman leaned over to his companion for two days, the suspended right-handed reliever, and asked a question that would soon fuel countless Big Apple bar debates: "What do you think of this bullpen thing? What do you like better?"
With 35 pitches over two scoreless innings facing the Orioles, the clock officially began on Chamberlain's metamorphosis into a big league starter, with a schedule of appearances to follow in helping get the right-hander to the proper endurance level.
"This is the timetable that we had set," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "It's going to take him a while to get to where he can give you 100 pitches, but this is what we had planned all along. It's our plan that we talked about over the winter and in Spring Training, and you saw the first of it tonight."
It wasn't that Chamberlain didn't relish his role as a dominant flame-thrower and game-shortener, trotting out of the bullpen and setting up for closer Mariano Rivera. If it was best for the team, Chamberlain told Cashman, he'd stay right there.
But the Yankees believe Chamberlain can and will be more than that, a valued piece of their starting rotation for years to come and perhaps their answer to the Josh Beckett-type ace the Red Sox wield. Chamberlain welcomed the challenge.
"We've seen what he's done in a short period of time as a starter at the Minor League level," Cashman said. "We see the ability that he has with the four pitches, and we want to test the theory. We need to find out, and it takes time. It's certainly going to take opportunity."
The Yankees had preset the general area of the second week of May as a time to explore a move for Chamberlain, who is 1-2 with a 2.66 ERA in 18 appearances for the Yankees, walking nine and striking out 25 around 14 hits over 20 1/3 innings.
Chamberlain will still continue to see duty in the late innings, but now it may come at different times. For example, when his pitch count bumps to 50, he could pitch innings six through eight; right now, he could pitch the seventh and eighth or, as he did Wednesday, the eighth and ninth.
|"I explained to him that I believe he can be a very successful performer in the rotation, and I know he can be a very successful performer in the bullpen. It was time, really, to make him a part of that process. I needed him to tell me what was in his heart."|
|-- Brian Cashman|
Though much of his big league success has come on the strength of two pitches -- a high-90s fastball and a biting slider -- Chamberlain exposed a little more of his repertoire in his second inning on Wednesday.
He started Aubrey Huff off with two changeups to open the ninth and also tossed a pair of offspeed offerings to the third batter in the inning, Luke Scott. His three strikeouts came on sliders and fastballs, though.
"It's not going to be a different Joba," Chamberlain said. "It's not like I'm transforming into a different person. The stuff in the eighth inning, you're going to see that from the first inning on. You're going to see a few more changeups, a few more curveballs and a few more two-seamers. That's about it."
The Yankees' reaction was one of anticipation. Third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who homered for a second consecutive game on Wednesday, said he was "very excited" by the decision to move Chamberlain.
"We all know how valuable and important starting pitching is, and Joba has great talent. I love it," Rodriguez said.
Chamberlain was informed of the plan by Cashman before the Yankees' game on Tuesday against Baltimore, pulled into the trainer's room out of earshot of the media, just a few yards away from his clubhouse locker.
"I explained to him that I believe he can be a very successful performer in the rotation, and I know he can be a very successful performer in the bullpen," Cashman said. "It was time, really, to make him a part of that process. I needed him to tell me what was in his heart."
The answer, Cashman learned, was that Chamberlain not only wanted an opportunity to start, but he was ready for it to happen now.
Girardi was then called in to confirm that all parties were on the same page, though word of the decision was not leaked until after Chamberlain's appearance on Wednesday.
"I'm excited about the opportunity, but first and foremost, we've got to win ballgames from here on out," Chamberlain said. "Tomorrow starts another day of getting my legs and getting back on the mound to see what happens."
The most Girardi would reveal of the plans is that Chamberlain would not pitch on Thursday against the Orioles. Chamberlain will stay with the Yankees for the immediate future and stretch out at the Major League level.
Though the club has not ruled out a Minor League assignment at some point, Chamberlain said he'd like to feel his way out in the big leagues.
"There's no better place to be than here to learn and to take your licks and to get better," Chamberlain said. "The plan is set to be that way and I'm going to continue to mix things in when I have the opportunity, and understand that I still have to go out and do my job."
Chamberlain's anticipated move to the rotation has become even more of a mysterious topic in recent weeks. Girardi may have thrown a misdirection to the press over the weekend when he hinted that Chamberlain might not even start at all in '08, setting off a hubbub.
Cashman -- caught off guard by a media horde on the field during batting practice -- downplayed those comments, saying that the Yankees continued to have a plan for Chamberlain and that it had not been altered.
The major concern of Chamberlain's development were his innings, having thrown just 88 1/3 Minor League innings last season before tossing an additional 27 2/3 -- including playoffs -- in the big leagues.
"Our plan all along has been to make him a starter," Girardi said. "There were some limitations on innings, because really he's pitched one year of professional baseball. You can't jump guys up too quickly, because it can lead to injury or it can lead to a second year where they struggle. It's what we've talked about all along internally."
Cashman said that team ownership had no part in pushing Chamberlain's plan into action, and also said that the Yankees' recent struggles -- 21-25, last in the American League East -- did not affect the timetable.
Earlier Wednesday in a telephone interview with MLB.com, Yankees co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner again pushed for Chamberlain's entry to the starting rotation.
"What I've learned over 35 years of all of this from baseball people is that you can talk all you want about bullpens, but starting pitching is what gets it done," Steinbrenner said. "If you have two great relievers in the bullpen, it doesn't do us any good."
Steinbrenner also later dropped a hint, saying, "If he can stretch out while he's in the bullpen, that's great. Would I like to see him as a starter right now? Yeah, but that's not what's happening. He just doesn't have the innings that [Phil] Hughes and [Ian] Kennedy have or had."
Soon, if the Yankees' plan proceeds as expected, Chamberlain will be able to boast that same stamina late into games. As he continues that process, Chamberlain said he expects to lean upon the Yankees' veteran starters like Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina for helpful tidbits of advice, the same way he soaked up offerings from Rivera during their bullpen downtime.
"I'm going to be able to learn from these guys that have been there," Chamberlain said. "I've never done it, but all of these other guys have. I'm going to continue to lean on them, and I'm also in the bullpen. I need to make sure I get outs in the role I'm in."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.