TAMPA, Fla. - When he saw Cliff Lee sign with the Phillies in December and Andy Pettitte retire last week, Joba Chamberlain knew talk of his going back into the rotation was inevitable.

"I don't know if that debate's ever going to stop," Chamberlain said Wednesday.

General manager Brian Cashman has said, unambiguously, all winter that the Yankees won't be looking in that direction. But it still has been a topic, and likely will continue to be as long as there are rotation holes.

"I knew it was coming, especially with us not signing those guys,'' Chamberlain said of the questions. "I guess you take it with a grain of salt. Cash said what he said, that's his opinion, and he's a big part of our organization. So I have to take my role and embrace it and try and be the best I can to help us win another championship.''

Chamberlain, speaking after a bullpen session at the team's minor-league complex, looked a few pounds heavier than he did at the end of last season, the result, he said, of adding a gym at his Nebraska home.

"Best thing I ever did," he said.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Precisely which role he'll have is one of the storylines of the spring. The ninth inning is spoken for, of course, as is the eighth, taken care of with the signing of Rafael Soriano. Pedro Feliciano and Boone Logan are the lefty specialists and, based on consistency in 2010, David Robertson would have to be considered ahead of Chamberlain on the depth chart.

For the first time in his young career, the 25-year-old Chamberlain, who joked that sometimes he feels like he's 40, enters the spring as just another pitcher.

"Everywhere from the sixth on, I would presume," he said of his role. "We have a pretty good bullpen. It's going to be fun out there with those guys."

Chamberlain had a better 2010 than his 4.40 ERA suggests - when he blew up, he blew up big - and he said he "learned a lot" from his first full season in the bullpen.

"I learned a lot about pitching," he said. "To use things in certain counts to your advantage. There are times where you don't really doubt yourself but you think twice, should I throw that? At the end, through the good and bad, I learned a ton, especially how to approach hitters. That was one of those things coming up as a young kid that I really didn't pay much attention to."

He said his bad outings resulted from taking the wrong approach.

"Just continue to pitch off your fastball," Chamberlain said. "Sometimes when your other stuff is good you kind of fall in love with it, but you have to understand that a well-located fastball is still probably the best pitch in baseball."

Chamberlain, who spent much of the winter chasing around his 4-year-old son, Karter, to his hockey games, said he doesn't think about being a starter again.

"I worry about whatever today is, getting through today," he said. "If that comes up in the future, then we'll answer that question. But as of right now, you can't think about it."