Commentary

Chamberlain's Joba in serious jeopardy

With trade deadline looming, struggling reliever needs to start producing in setup role

Updated: July 16, 2010, 10:43 AM ET
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

While this weekend will be a celebration of what George Steinbrenner accomplished, it very well could be a tipping point about what Joba Chamberlain hasn't.

Chamberlain's role as the eighth-inning man and, quite possibly, his Yankees future are on the clock. The Yankees will not let Chamberlain's inconsistency prevent them from making the playoffs or winning a championship.

The Yankees are already looking at what is out there in terms of bullpen help. It is the key area of focus for GM Brian Cashman heading into the July 31 trade deadline.

[+] EnlargeJoba Chamberlain
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesJoba Chamberlain's 5.79 ERA isn't cutting it as a bridge to Mariano.

The question is: Will Cashman bring in relievers to complement Chamberlain or replace him? The BTR (Bridge To Rivera) has been unsteady all season, making this the biggest on-field issue facing the team.

After Chamberlain's latest breakdown, Yankees manager Joe Girardi said he would put Chamberlain out there again, but Girardi -- who tries to reveal as little as possible to the media -- didn't seem very emphatic.

Chamberlain had just flushed a wonderful seven-inning performance by Javier Vazquez in Seattle by allowing a grand slam, when Girardi said he wants to have an eighth-inning guy. He said he was sticking with Chamberlain, but gave himself wiggle room.

Girardi believes it is important for his relievers to know their roles. But there are no scholarships, even for guys who once seemed to have limitless potential.

Cashman has emphasized a very un-Boss-like quality with the Yankees' young pitching: patience. Cashman is quick to point out that in other markets pitchers are able to go through a more gradual maturation process than in the Bronx. Cashman is trying to change that even if the fans and media aren't playing along.

Chamberlain, who was voted the most overrated player in baseball in a new Sports Illustrated players' poll, is still just 24. His 2007 ascension from newly drafted minor leaguer to season saver was a blessing in the short term, but may be a curse in the long term. Chamberlain is always graded on that striking-out-the-world summer.

Even as a starter, the expectations seemed to be he should duplicate over six or seven innings what he did over one, which never seemed like a rational projection.

Now, people would just settle for one scoreless inning. If there aren't a few of those soon, there might be no turning back for Chamberlain as a Yankee.

The Cliff Lee deal was the initial warning sign. From the current roster, the Lee trade was about Chamberlain as much as anyone else.

The Yankees, first and foremost, wanted Lee because he would guarantee them the most formidable postseason rotation.

But the near-deal exposed other feelings, even if the Yankees would never admit them publicly. It showed they aren't completely comfortable with A.J. Burnett. It demonstrated they could put All-Star starter Phil Hughes into the bullpen eventually. It also indicated they weren't opposed to spinning Vazquez off, perhaps in a trade for relievers.

But Lee is in Texas , which makes looking internally for any bullpen help a lot more painful. This leaves it up to Chamberlain to show he can handle the eighth.

The big games begin this weekend against the Tampa Rays. Chamberlain will either show he belongs or be shown the door.

This seemed to be the year for Chamberlain to put everything back together. There were no Joba Rules to fall back on as an excuse for any failures.

It looked as though Chamberlain was finally settled in setup. Now, he is pitching for his job and his Yankees future because if the Bombers must bring in someone else to be the BTR then Chamberlain could be lost in the Bronx.

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

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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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