The conundrum of Joba Chamberlain

NEW YORK -- This was Joba Chamberlain's October 2010 moment. He stood on the mound at Yankee Stadium, peering in with his familiar squint. There wasn't a fan in the stands. The batter was a teammate, Greg Golson.

It was a scene nearly impossible to imagine four years ago. Back then Joba was in the middle of the Yankees Universe. Now? Not so much.

In fact, he wasn't around to talk after the simulated game on Tuesday. It likely wasn't because Chamberlain didn't want to talk to the media -- he is as accessible as any Yankee. It probably had more to do with perceived indifference. Why would anyone need to talk to him?

From center stage to a Yankees extra in what seems like a New York minute. It has been four years in the making or unmaking, whichever way you want to look at it. The one-time wunderkind is just 25, and the question is: What is next for Joba Chamberlain?

Chamberlain has gone from eighth inning-man to a man without an inning, relegated with the "stay ready" crowd, waiting for a chance.

Before we all fully count Chamberlain out, let's remember this is Joba -- with a personality that is magnetized to the spotlight -- which makes you wonder if there is still a playoff moment out there for him to grab and to pump his fist at again.

After not pitching in the ALDS sweep over the Minnesota Twins, when does Yankees manager Joe Girardi foresee using Chamberlain in the next round?

"Anytime," Girardi said. "I have talked about when you have guys in the bullpen that are starters you usually want to use a reliever to get out of an inning before you maybe bring in a long man. That could be at any point. I told our guys don't assume that you are not going to be used until the sixth inning."

While no one with the Yankees outwardly admits it, everyone knows that Chamberlain's Yankees career is a runaway train going the wrong way right now. He has gone from the summer of 2007 setup savior to future ace to the Joba Rules to fifth-starter-competition loser to the eighth-inning man to ... now what? He was 3-4 with a 4.40 ERA this season.

"A lot of times you are judged on your ERA," Girardi said. "Joba seems to give up runs in bunches. He won't give up runs for a while and then he'll give up a four-spot in an inning. I thought he did a pretty good job in the eighth inning the first four or five months."

Not good enough to keep the job.

"He had some hiccups, just like everyone else, but his hiccups were usually a little bigger and lasted a little longer," Girardi said.

Chamberlain's greatest problem has been his 2007 success. He is like a band that starts out with a No. 1 hit and then is asked to be The Beatles.

In '07, Chamberlain -- throwing fastballs in the triple-digits -- gave up one run in his first 24 innings. He was 2-0 with a 0.38 ERA. He had the name, the look and the fairy-tale story, with his father raising him despite dealing with polio.

"I think it would be hard to live up to the expectations he created in '07," Girardi said. "He was so dominant. I mean it's pretty hard for anyone to carry that for a long, long period of time. You don't see pitchers do that. So he created an expectation by the way he pitched, and it's hard to live up to on a daily basis. He still is effective for us."

But he is not The Man. He is just a guy on the team. It is pretty easy to imagine that the best days of his Yankees career may have occurred when he was 22.

"He came up throwing 100 [mph], so whatever he does is not going be good enough in a lot of people's eyes," said Phil Hughes, who thinks that is unfair.

At 25, it is surely not over yet. But as you watched Chamberlain throw in October with not a soul in the seats, it sure felt like it is getting late.

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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