Commentary

The F-word: Joba to 'pen ... forever?

The Yanks sound decisive about Joba Chamberlain. Just not in a feel-good way.

Updated: April 1, 2010, 11:56 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

It was just a 30-second answer embedded in a 20-minute radio interview that New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman gave this week in his never-ending attempt to wrangle the Joba Chamberlain debate into something smaller than a crisis, something less troubling than an organizational split. But the remark was also the most startling thing Cashman said about Chamberlain this spring. With Opening Day just ahead on Sunday, it didn't get nearly enough play in New York.

And it made the Yankees sound more decisive about Chamberlain than they've been.

Just not in a feel-good way.

[+] EnlargeJoba Chamberlain
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesThe fireballing Joba Chamberlain of 2007 is likely a thing of the past.

Cashman had to be challenged and goaded into saying this, but his basic message was that anyone still waiting for the Joba they saw in 2007, back when Chamberlain was the kid phenom who lit up the radar gun at 100 mph and whiffed batters as the Yankees' setup man, should realize that that Joba is probably not coming back.

"You're not going to see that again, I don't think, because we would have seen it by now, I think," Cashman told ESPN Radio 1050's Michael Kay. "Some players obviously can maintain that high octane for a long period of time, and then some people obviously only have that and settle down a little bit. And he's settled down a little bit. It's as simple as that. I haven't seen it again, so do I expect to see that when I haven't seen it for two years? No … I mean, it'd be nice if I did. But that's not what I've seen."

It was quite an admission. For the first time, Cashman suggested the Yankees see a ceiling on what's reasonable to expect from Chamberlain, who was seen as a sky's-the-limit talent when he first broke in at 21. That doesn't mean Chamberlain can't still be a terrific pitcher. It just won't quiet the debate about whether the Yankees' handling of Chamberlain is what diminished him.

That last charge is why Cashman keeps talking about Joba's future even though he long ago grew weary of the topic, especially the suggestions that the Yankees' micromanaging of Chamberlain's career could someday go down as "Cashman's Folly." Cashman knows how New York works. He knows the Joba of 2007 still colors everything.

Once upon a time it looked as though Chamberlain could be an ace starter or Mariano Rivera's heir apparent at closer -- take your pick. Now, Opening Day arrives Sunday in Boston and the Yankees have made a point of telling Chamberlain he's no lock to get his eighth-inning job back. He has to earn it, not coast on who he used to be.

"We have a passionate fan base," Cashman said in a phone interview this week, "and for some reason, the interest in him has taken on a life of its own. But what has happened with Joba's career happens all the time all around baseball. It just usually happens with young pitchers in the minor leagues. It happened for Joba in full view here."

Cashman would like to keep the debate more out of view. But that became impossible because of some uncharacteristically public glimpses into the organization's internal thinking right after the Yankees announced last week that Phil Hughes had beaten out Chamberlain as the Yankees' No. 5 starter.

On Friday, Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland said of Chamberlain: "We feel like he can be a good starter. [But] we feel like he can be a great reliever."

By Saturday, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter had added that the bullpen was a great spot for Chamberlain because everyone has seen how much more Chamberlain has thrived there.

On Sunday, Yankees scouting director Billy Eppler, Cashman's right-hand man, went on WFAN and said, "He's going to be a reliever." Even long-term? "I don't foresee a situation where he'd be starting at all," Eppler said.

It's hard to remember the last internal debate about a high-profile Yankees player that's been as on-the-record as this one has been. For a change, names are actually attached to the sensitive quotes. And all of them suggest the Yankees are actually more decisive than they've ever been about Joba. Not less.

He's a reliever.

The only thing the Yankees haven't said is that Chamberlain will be a reliever forever. The F-word. But it's impossible to ignore that everything is trending that way.

There are Chamberlain's stats: In 50 relief appearances, he's 3-2 with a 1.50 ERA; as a starter, he's 12-7 with a 4.18 ERA. There are the stakes: Cashman admits that his decision to sign Javier Vazquez as his No. 4 starter for this season was informed partly by his failed attempt two years ago to pencil in the unproven Ian Kennedy and Hughes at the No. 4 and No. 5 starting slots.

"What I learned," Cashman says, "is don't go out and try to win the AL East with two guys in the rotation who were rookies."

Beyond that? Cashman rejects the popular argument that Chamberlain would still be the Joba of 2007 if the Yankees hadn't messed with the kid's head and sent him yo-yoing between the bullpen and starting rotation, then limited his innings as a starter last year just as he happened to take off on a hot streak after the All-Star break.

Many of Cashman's points are legit. Science is on Cashman's side. Young pitchers who pitch too much too soon often break down. And Cashman is right: Many other big league teams take the same approach.

Still, even Cashman concedes that Joba doesn't ace the eyeball test anymore.

It's not just the radar gun readings that dip to 90-94 mph when Chamberlain starts. Chamberlain doesn't have the same swagger, aggressiveness or urgency. As Jeter hinted, some pitchers are just temperamentally better suited to be relievers. Chamberlain seems to be one of them. The emotion and stress lift him.

So if Joba acts like a reliever and pitches better as a reliever and is being used as a reliever and the Yankees prefer that he'd spend this season as a reliever, why get hung up on the fact that they want an out and won't say Chamberlain is a reliever forever?

Look at everything else.

The distance between "for now" and "forever" never looked so small.

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.

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