Chamberlain ready to embrace relief role
Joba to come out of the 'pen against Tigers on Saturday
TAMPA, Fla. -- Joba Chamberlain promises that he did not flinch when the door to Joe Girardi's office slammed shut behind him on Thursday, when he was summoned for a meeting that would end with him walking back out as a member of the Yankees' bullpen.
The decision to begin the season with Phil Hughes as the fifth starter restores Chamberlain to relief, a position where he has excelled. After spending most of the spring preparing to be a starter, the tricky part is to flip the switch and get back into that other mode.
"Right now, I have to embrace the role that I'm in," Chamberlain said. "I can't think about being a starter at this point. For me to help this team now, it's being in the bullpen and trying to figure out a way to get guys out there. It's unfair to my team to think about something else when this is my job right now."
While admitting that there was some disappointment in the decision, Chamberlain said that he is "excited" about the assignment, and the Yankees plan to have him pitch a relief inning on Saturday against the Tigers in Lakeland, Fla., to begin his adjustment process.
Girardi had predicted less-than-thrilled responses from all four of the candidates who did not win the fifth starter's job, with Alfredo Aceves, Sergio Mitre and the released Chad Gaudin also falling short. But in Chamberlain's case, they know his mind-set will click.
"I think it's a situation where he knows how to pitch out of the bullpen," Girardi said. "I think he wanted to start. That's a switch that he has to work through, but I don't see it being a problem. I think all the guys had worked all offseason long to be that fifth starter, so it's emotions that every one of them had to work through."
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Chamberlain thought that this spring went better for him than 2009, and noted that he couldn't have been happier with the improvement of his changeup. General manager Brian Cashman agreed, saying that he believes Chamberlain could be a big league starter; Hughes just outperformed him.
"On this particular team in 2010, if we're going to have him help us right now, it's going to have to be out of the 'pen," Cashman said of Chamberlain. "But that can change overnight, as you know. If somebody gets hurt, the next thing you know, we'll have a decision to make. One of these guys will have to slot right into the rotation."
For now, though, Chamberlain will be working to reclaim the eighth inning in a season that could have been his breakout campaign, the year he was finally to be free of all those "Joba Rules" that forced the Yankees to tap dance around an innings limit in 2009.
Cashman does not feel that Chamberlain's time in the rotation had been a wasted experiment.
"What we did was, we finished off his development program," Cashman said. "We have choices with him. He can start if we need him to start, he can relieve if we want him to relieve. So I don't feel it's a waste at all. We completed the mission on him, and what will be -- will be."
Cashman said that the outside perception of Chamberlain as a "failed starter" "would be an inaccurate read." If Chamberlain were wearing the uniform of another American League East team, such as the Orioles or Blue Jays, Cashman said, fans might think that Chamberlain did a good job for his first season as a big league starter and expect better results in 2010.
But that was not an option for the Yankees, who acquired Javier Vazquez from the Braves in December, knowing that the move would create a fifth-starter logjam. In fact, Cashman said the idea of having both Chamberlain and Hughes in relief was discussed behind closed doors at one point.
"Certainly, that's come up," he said. "It came up before camp. It's hard not to think about stuff like that, too. But it's hard to find those starters."
One of the keys for the great debate to put Chamberlain back in the bullpen has been his arsenal and demeanor, both of which spike when used over shorter periods.
During his name-making days out of the bullpen, Chamberlain relied almost exclusively on a blazing fastball and biting slider, and he plans to keep his curveball and changeup in the back of the tank for the most part.
"We're still going to have the other ones, just in case you need to fool somebody once in a while," Chamberlain said. "But those [fastballs and sliders] have worked out of the bullpen, and we're going to continue to go with those."
The Yankees are expecting that Chamberlain's move to the bullpen will increase his velocity, just as it did last year, when Hughes shifted into a relief role and performed with dominance. Chamberlain was clocked as high as 97 mph during the playoffs last year.
"He seems more amped, obviously," Cashman said. "You can be when you're coming out of the 'pen. You can just let it fly. You have 30 pitches, high octane, here it goes. I'm going to go from zero to 60 in a second because you can -- it's one inning."
So let the debate start anew. Joba 2010 is working out of the bullpen, and those who wonder what Chamberlain would have done with one more season of starting development under his belt will just have to wait and wonder.
"I think when they stop talking about me, I probably should worry," Chamberlain said. "That's the way it is. I don't know if it's ever going to end. I'm going to take this role and embrace it, and I've learned to take one day at a time, one year at a time. I just stay in the moment and enjoy everything that I can."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.