Commentary

Joba's gut a weighty issue for Yankees

With so much riding on his spring, Chamberlain dares come to camp super-sized

Updated: February 17, 2011, 7:12 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- A pitcher's ERA doesn't necessarily have to balloon along with his waistline. The Yankees already have one pitcher, and a pretty darned good one, who is living proof of that.

Not everyone can be a workout monster like the third baseman, or the first baseman, or the manager, for that matter, and certain human bodies, no matter how hard they work, are always going to carry a layer of cushy foam rubber over the solid foundation that lies beneath.

[+] EnlargeChamberlain
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIt's not a stretch to say there's a little more Joba Chamberlain than usual this year at Yankees camp.

But what kind of a message does it send when a pitcher like Joba Chamberlain -- who has gone from flame-throwing phenom with unlimited potential in 2007 to potential flameout in 2011 -- comes to training camp without a clear role in the Yankees' bullpen and without any guarantees about his future, but with a gut that would make CC Sabathia blush?

Worse than that, when questioned about it, what sort of attitude does it convey when that same Joba Chamberlain lapses into an "I've-been-in-this-game-a-long-time-and-I know-what-I'm-doing" routine to deflect attention from what anyone's eyes can see without the help of a scale?

Who does this guy think he is, Mariano Rivera?

To recap, Chamberlain had a subpar year in 2010 just about any way you try to spin it. Given a chance to crack the starting rotation last spring, he was beaten out by Phil Hughes. Then, handed the responsibility of locking down the eighth inning to ensure safe delivery of a game to Mo, he promptly handed that job back to David Robertson.

Now, Rafael Soriano is here and the only way Chamberlain will get anywhere near an eighth inning is if someone kidnaps just about everyone else in the Yankees' bullpen.

Face it, in less than four years Joba has fallen and can't seem to get up, from being Mariano's heir apparent to just another middle reliever, another guy fighting in the mosh pit with Robertson, Boone Logan and newcomer Pedro Feliciano just to get into a ballgame.

And the way he chose to report for work for his latest assignment, which is basically, "Come to camp and prove you're worthy of getting the ball in an important situation," is, to put it nicely, somewhat physically unprepared.

Or, as GM Brian Cashman put it, less delicately, "Joba's obviously heavier. Let's just leave it at that."

It is sort of like showing up at a job interview for an executive position dressed like a landscaper.

Even if you're the best candidate for the job, you're unlikely to make a very good first impression.

What Joe Girardi, workout monster and supremely self-disciplined human being, had to say about Joba on Wednesday afternoon is undeniably true: "The bottom line is, he's gonna be judged on how he pitches."

And characteristically, Girardi was protective of his player and the closely guarded secret of how many times the scale spun around before coming to rest on the magic number at the official team weigh-in on Monday. (Not even Cashman, never all that concerned about bruising feelings, would reveal that.)

But Girardi tipped his true feelings when he compared Chamberlain to David Wells, another portly pitcher who had a pretty good Yankees career.

Until the ending, of course, when, a day after bragging about the wonders of his spectacularly de-conditioned body, Wells was unable to go more than an inning in Game 5 of the 2003 World Series because his spectacularly de-conditioned back gave out on him.

Still, it will be of no import if Joba, who preferred to discuss the adjustments he made in the placement of his hands over the offseason, rediscovers the electric stuff and consistency he had as a rookie in 2007.

But again, what does it say about a guy who comes to arguably the most important training camp of his professional life looking as though he needed to make a New Year's resolution?

We've all read, and gagged on, spring training stories about players supposedly coming to camp "in the best shape of their lives," only to see that once the games begin, they're the same guy they've always been.

Now, we can gag on the flip side, the story of the player who comes to spring training in perhaps the worst shape of his life, while insisting -- oh yes he did -- that he is actually in great condition.

I mean, who are you going to believe? Joba Chamberlain or your lying eyes?

"I feel great. I'm stronger physically," Joba insisted. "I feel awesome. I would probably say I'm in better shape than I have been in a couple of years. My running is great. Running is never easy, but it's not something that I dread every day that I do it."

He talked about how easy it was for him to train this winter, since he installed a gym in the basement of his home in Lincoln, Neb., of what a pleasure it was not to have to leave the house in "minus-13 weather" to go the gym, what a joy it was to train alongside his 6-year-old son, Karter.

He also cut off any more questions about his weight. "I know you guys have to ask the question," he said, "but this is the last time I'm going to answer it."

OK, but if it's not a big deal, then why is it such a sore subject?

Because it's not so much the extra weight, but what it represents. In the same room is Sabathia, who won 21 games last year and just missed out on his second Cy Young, a guy whose girth has never gotten in the way of his effectiveness, who felt it necessary to shed 25 pounds to lessen the strain on his surgically repaired right knee.

Also in the room are young pitchers like Andrew Brackman and Dellin Betances, and slightly older ones like Robertson and Mark Prior, who came to camp looking as if they were ready to compete in the Olympics.

And soon, the room will be graced by Rivera, at 41 and with nearly 600 saves still the most remarkable physical specimen in the clubhouse, probably the only Yankee on the pitching staff qualified to say what Joba Chamberlain had the gumption to say under questioning about his weight:

"I'm getting to know my body better. I've learned to pitch in the big leagues. I'm kind of at that point where I've kinda done everything. I'm to the point now where I feel comfortable enough that I know what I need to do. I've changed a few things in the offseason. I feel great coming in. I've thrown a lot of bullpens. I've been spinning them for a while now."

This is another one he's trying to spin.

Fans ask me all the time if the Yankees know something about Joba Chamberlain that the rest of us don't, some unflattering bit of information that makes them continue to treat him as if he is fragile, or unstable, or in some way unreliable.

Clearly, they know the Joba Chamberlain who chose to reveal himself on Wednesday: the 25-year-old who already knows so much about pitching he no longer needs to bother with the little things anymore.

Like getting in shape.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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