Commentary

For Joba Chamberlain, the time is now

Chamberlain must step up in relief, or else he could be headed out of town

Updated: April 6, 2010, 12:35 AM ET
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

BOSTON -- The Yankees desperately want Joba Chamberlain to be their eighth-inning man, which means we have officially moved from the Joba Rules to the Joba Roles. What role can Joba handle in the bullpen?

The Yankees are a $200 million machine -- but if the bridge to Mariano Rivera collapses, the Red Sox and Rays could fly by in the standings, and it is not inconceivable that the Yankees could miss the playoffs. That is the pressure on Chamberlain's right shoulder.

[+] EnlargeJoba Chamberlain
AP Photo/Charles KrupaChamberlain didn't get off to a great start Sunday night against the Red Sox.

How he handles this could be the most important element of the Yankees' young season. And if he fails, this could be the end of Chamberlain as an important Yankee, or even a Yankee at all. If he doesn't take hold of the eighth-inning role, his next stop may be riding on a Triple-A bus.

In their offseason meetings, GM Brian Cashman and his team had one eye on the fifth starter spot and the other on the eighth-inning job. There were many different opinions in the room, but the big question remained: What are Chamberlain's and Phil Hughes' potential upsides as starting pitchers? Which one is better suited for relief?

There were different opinions, but ultimately the feeling was that Hughes can be a No. 2 or No. 3 starter one day, while Chamberlain is probably more of a No. 4 or No. 5. Chamberlain, still just 24 years old, doesn't locate his fastball consistently enough to go through lineups multiple times, and the feeling was that Chamberlain is best in short spurts. Despite all the pains of the past year, Chamberlain, it was determined, should be the bridge to Rivera.

"Joba pitches off adrenaline," pitching Dave Eiland said.

An opposing scout agrees with this assessment. He compares Chamberlain to Randy Myers, the former Mets closer. Myers could reach the high-90s on his fastball, but was built physically and mentally to pitch late in games. Chamberlain may be similar -- but if he is going to have any success, it will come down to location.

While the focus has been on the fact that Chamberlain doesn't throw his fastball 98 or 99 miles per hour anymore, like he did back in 2007, the real issue is not how hard he throws but where it goes. This is where Chamberlain must improve, because no matter how hard he throws his fastball, it has to be in the zone or else Chamberlain won't be successful.

On Opening Night, Chamberlain threw 33 pitches -- 22 of them were fastballs. Last year, 58 percent of Chamberlain's pitches were fastballs.

Unless David Robertson can handle it, the Yankees don't have anyone else in the bullpen seemingly equipped to be their eighth-inning guy. Chan Ho Park is a journeyman. Damaso Marte can't seem to stay healthy. Alfredo Aceves is a long man or a starter on other teams. There is no viable alternative. (Of course, these are the Yankees -- they could add payroll and make a trade).

Still, the expectations as we move from the Joba Rules to the Joba Roles are very high. There has been a public outcry that the Yankees have ruined Chamberlain. They held him back and have not let him be himself. Chamberlain's never said it, but you get a sense he might be feel that way, too.

The irony is, Cashman wants the Yankees to be less corporate. Cashman is pro-fist pumps and pies in the face. He wants Joba to be Joba.

But Chamberlain is just 24 and he seems a little worn out by all the attention, all the expectations and the perception that he is failing.

When we talked before Opening Night, he tooled around on his new iPad. As we spoke about the Joba Roles, his voice was respectful, but monotone. His answers were trite. "It is the opportunity to play on the team," Chamberlain said of pitching in relief instead of starting.

When we turned the conversation to his new toy, he lit up. He said it is "awesome." What does he like best about it? "As a 24-year-old kid, having games on a computer is pretty cool," Chamberlain said.

Yes, he is just a 24-year-old kid with possibly the weight of the Yankees' season on his right shoulder. That can make it hard to locate your fastball sometimes. But the Yankees need him to do it, or it soon could be "Game Over" for Joba as an important Yankee.

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Andrew Marchand is a senior writer for ESPNNewYork. He also regularly contributes to SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, ESPNews, ESPN New York 98.7 FM and ESPN Radio. He joined ESPN in 2007 after nine years at the New York Post. Follow Andrew on Twitter »

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