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02/11/10 10:00 AM EST

Start the debate: Joba vs. Hughes

Competition for fifth starter expected to be spring's best

NEW YORK -- Sometime next week, Joe Girardi will arrange thick binders of scouting information in his concrete-walled office at George M. Steinbrenner Field, secure with the knowledge that he probably won't have to use them to make many of his decisions this spring.

Barring injuries, it won't take long to pencil in CC Sabathia as the ace or to expect Mark Teixeira to man first base, for example. That leaves plenty of time to ponder the few head-scratchers Girardi will inherit, such as the fifth starter's identity.

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It is perhaps the most controversial decision the Yankees will have to make this spring, choosing the courses of action for Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, two talented and prized pieces of the club's future who played roles in the 2009 championship.

"It's something that's going to be a battle," Chamberlain said. "The greatest part about it is, it's not only going to make guys fight for that No. 5 spot, but it's going to make our team better. We're going to push each other and continue to try to outwork each other."

For his part at this early juncture, Girardi isn't about to select any favorites. Both hurlers are being considered to slot behind No. 4 starter Javier Vazquez and are mentally preparing for 30 or so starts. Girardi is looking at the spring as an open competition.

"We'll put the best guy that we feel can fill that spot and give us the best chance to win," Girardi said evenhandedly.

Not that the final decision must necessarily land on either Chamberlain or Hughes. Girardi has been quick to point out that Chad Gaudin is a viable candidate, having gone 2-0 with a 3.43 ERA in 11 appearances for the Yankees after being acquired in August.

After pitching a few choice games, Gaudin mentioned his increasing confidence to explain his turnaround from a lackluster opening to the season with the Padres. The Yankees' infield defense allowed Gaudin to worry less and execute more, something that showed up in his results.

The Yankees will also take long looks at Alfredo Aceves and Sergio Mitre after both pitchers played supporting roles in 2009. Aceves was 10-1 with a 3.54 ERA in 43 appearances, all but one out of the bullpen, and Mitre came back quicker than most from Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery to go 3-3 with a 6.79 ERA in 12 games (nine starts).

But the most intriguing storyline has to be Chamberlain vs. Hughes, a pair of talented right arms that could just as easily land in the bullpen as the rotation.

Chamberlain said recently that he is heading to Spring Training intent on grabbing the No. 5 spot, and hopes that Hughes is up for what should be a fun battle between the right-handers.

"I hope he got after it and is ready for Spring Training, because it's going to be fun," Chamberlain said. "I think he has something to prove also. He had a great year last year in the bullpen, and I think he wants to come out and prove something again this year. It's going to be fun for us."

One plus in Chamberlain's favor could be that he is finally free from the innings restrictions that prompted the sale of "Joba Rules" T-shirts in the Bronx, a witty wordplay on the regulations that accompanied Chamberlain's 2007 arrival in Joe Torre's bullpen.

Although Chamberlain showed flashes of brilliance in his 31 starts for the Yankees, inconsistency was nagging.

Late in the season, with Chamberlain coming up on a 157 1/3-inning tally, the Yankees tried to get creative by spacing out Chamberlain's starts, then capping him in a series of three- and four-inning starts in an exercise he said frustrated him at times.

As odd as Chamberlain's handling may have appeared, at least it was a planned piece of the blueprint. Hughes' emergence as a key setup option ahead of Mariano Rivera developed largely out of necessity -- originally, Hughes had been summoned from Triple-A as a spot starter and was supposed to head back to continue starting.

He never made it back to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, leaving the rotation after seven starts and faring 5-1 with three saves and a Major League-best 1.40 ERA over his 44 relief appearances. He landed in the bullpen in June, and after stepping into the primary setup role on July 3, the Yankees were 31-5 in games Hughes appeared in.

Despite the bullpen switch working so well, Hughes thinks his future is in starting. Late in the season, he credited his improving performance more to growth than to adjusting to the relief role.

"I feel like I was throwing the ball well to begin with," Hughes said. "Dating back to the [Arizona] Fall League and Spring Training and the early part of the year, I was getting my confidence back and pitching well. I think the bullpen translation was just a matter of my stuff being better and confidence."

Hughes' arsenal seemed to go up a tick last year as he let it go against opposing hitters, and it could be fair to wonder how quickly he will find those results again in a starting role.

One other important consideration for the Yankees is that Hughes pitched only 105 1/3 innings last year between Triple-A and the big leagues, making it a certainty that his 2010 outings will be limited in the same fashion that clamped upon Chamberlain.

"I feel like I can do it and be successful at it," Hughes said. "But I don't really worry about those types of decisions. ... The confidence, the aggressiveness, those sorts of things are things that I can take from relieving and make it work for me as a starter."

The decision-making process should be one to observe, as the Yankees regroup for the spring with many of their other positional and pitching choices already set.

"It won't be completely boring," Girardi said, with a smile. "There will be some interesting competition."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.