Joba hopes he can help Tigers rule
Right-hander arrives in camp slim, bearded, eyeing return to eighth-inning role
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The first thing you should know is that Joba Chamberlain is wearing a neat, tightly-trimmed beard, which is just fine around Tigertown.
When he was in New York, there were the Joba Rules and the Yankee Rules, and facial hair was not allowed under the latter, as Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi also discovered. In Detroit, there are no such rules.
"I haven't been able to wear a beard anywhere I've played," Chamberlain said on Saturday morning before working out with his new teammates on the back fields beyond Joker Marchant Stadium. "I'm taking full advantage of it. It's great not to have to shave in the morning."
Chamberlain, looking slim and fit, said he's in a good place: happy to have had his experience with the Yankees and looking forward to helping the Tigers claw over the hump this season and win their first World Series title since 1984.
That winning ethos is what remains from his seven years with the Yankees, who went to the playoffs five times during that period and won the 2009 World Series in six games against the then defending champion Phillies.
"I'm here to win," Chamberlain said. "You've got to come out and be prepared to win, and I think they are. That's the reason I came over here. When I was with the Yankees, we were expected to win. That's the mindset you have to have. You can choose where you want to go, and if you want to win, you pick a place where you have a real chance to win. I'm excited to be here because of that. I'm really looking forward to it."
Chamberlain chose Detroit as a free agent at the relatively low cost of a one-year contract worth $2.5 million. He's hoping to return to his roots as an eighth-inning setup man for newly acquired closer Joe Nathan.
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus hasn't made up his mind.
"The only thing that's certain is Joe Nathan," Ausmus said. "I hope Joba is the eighth-inning guy, because that means he's pitching well, but going into the season, there are no assigned roles at this point. Right now, Joba and Bruce Rondon we think about as eighth-inning guys. Performances will determine who actually ends up being the eighth-inning guy."
Chamberlain certainly has the experience.
Chamberlain was selected by the Yankees out of the University of Nebraska with the 41st pick in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft and about a year later, he was in the Majors setting up for the legendary Mariano Rivera. Back then, Chamberlain's fastball had motion. He was untouchable and electrifying and had 34 strikeouts in 24 innings in '07. He was also subject to the Joba Rules; the Yankees required he get one day off for every inning he pitched in order to preserve him for the future.
Chamberlain was on the mound in Cleveland that fall in the eighth inning of Game 2 of the American League Division Series when the midges came off Lake Erie, flooded Progressive Field and swarmed around him. He walked two, hit a batter and threw a couple of wild pitches as the Indians came back from a 1-0 deficit and eventually won the game to take control of the best-of-five series.
In 2008, the Yankees began the ill-advised experiment of moving Chamberlain into the starting rotation. The decision created tumult, and Chamberlain was a decidedly mediocre starter -- 12-7 with 4.18 ERA and 1.48 WHIP in 43 starts over two seasons. He lost his starting slot during the spring of 2010 to Phil Hughes and wound up back in the bullpen. Then, in the middle of the 2011 season, he hurt his right elbow and underwent Tommy John ligament replacement surgery. In March of 2012, while he was rehabbing, he severely dislocated his right ankle jumping on a trampoline.
When Chamberlain returned in a purely relief role, he couldn't attain the heights he reached as a rookie. He had been replaced by David Robertson in that eighth-inning slot, and he floundered in middle relief. Still, the stats don't lie. As a reliever, his ERA, WHIP and opponents batting averages are much lower than when he starts. His strikeouts projected over nine innings are 9.7 as a reliever and 8.4 as a starter.
Still, Chamberlain said he was glad to do all of it. It made him a better pitcher, player and person and will help him this year with the Tigers.
"There's nothing they can present to me that I haven't done," said Chamberlain, 28. "I just have to use that to my advantage to be able to learn from all those experiences and apply them to this year."
To say that Chamberlain has yet to reach his incredible potential would not be an understatement. Like Hughes, who signed as a free agent this past offseason with the Twins, he looks back on those Yankee years fondly. They are happy memories.
"I had the opportunity to play in the old Yankee Stadium. I had the opportunity to open the new stadium," he said. "There were just so many things that were part of the experience of playing there. Obviously, winning the World Series was unbelievable. I got to be the last person to strike somebody out in the old stadium, winning it all in the first year of the new stadium. There are so many.
"Just my teammates, everybody I played with over seven years. I just played with some great, great players. Rivera, [Derek] Jeter. Not only was Jeter a great player, but he was an even better person. I'm proud to call these guys friends. "
Now he has a chance to try it again in another setting. Bearded and older now, the real question is whether Joba and the Tigers will finally rule.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.