Forget role, Joba can be major contributor
The good news for Yankees fans is that CC Sabathia lost weight. The bad news is that Joba Chamberlain appears to have found it.
"I'll acknowledge that he's put some weight on," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told Newsday Tuesday. "I'll leave it at that. All that other stuff gets handled behind closed doors."
"He says he gained some muscle," Cashman said, and just last week, Chamberlain told reporters that the weight gain resulted from adding a gym to his Nebraska home. "Best thing I ever did," the righthander said.
Suffice it to say, the added pounds don't look like muscle. And the Yankees clearly don't agree that the added pounds constitute a great advancement for Chamberlain, the human lightning rod.
When I asked Chamberlain directly if the Yankees asked and/or ordered him to lose weight, he said, "No."
But in the still electric relationship between Chamberlain and the yakosphere, the prodigal pitcher isn't the only one who needs to get his act together.
Once Chamberlain drops weight, Yankees observers need to drop their expectations. A seventh-inning reliever certainly isn't an ace starting pitcher or a closer, and it's not what anyone had in mind after Chamberlain's explosive big-league debut in 2007. Yet he can provide significant value.
"I still think he has a chance to be a very special player," Cashman said. "It's going to be in the bullpen."
Said Chamberlain: "The role that you have right now, you should be the best at. Whatever that is. Folding towels, getting water. Second inning, third inning, eighth inning, ninth inning, whatever it may be. Try to be the best."
Chamberlain spent the 2010 season fully as a reliever, after a half-baked, final spring-training opportunity to start went nowhere. He made a career-high 73 appearances and recorded a 4.40 ERA in 712/3 innings, receiving a midseason demotion from Mariano Rivera's primary setup man to a seventh-inning guy after the acquisition of Kerry Wood.
Break down the season, and you see his ERA resulted from five brutal outings, in which he gave up 18 runs (17 earned) in three innings. Take those away, and Chamberlain has a 2.36 ERA in 68 appearances.
"If you can look behind the numbers, he's better than what he looks like as a whole," said Cashman, who cited Chamberlain's strikeouts (77) and walks (22) - both improvements per inning over 2009.
The key, then, is to avoid those explosive outings. Chamberlain, 25, already has been working on his mechanics with new pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who says that his charge needs to work on "getting the ball down on an angle," which would improve his slider.
Furthermore, there's the mental component. "Just slow things down," Chamberlain said. "Take control back of the game. And I don't think I did a very good job of that."
He spent his offseason largely not thinking of baseball, he said, mostly playing with his 4-year-old son, Karter. He swore he didn't intently follow how, whenever something happened in the Yankees' world - Cliff Lee's signing with Philadelphia, Rafael Soriano's signing, Andy Pettitte's retirement - the instant reaction was, "What does this mean for Joba?!"
"I know it happens. I'd be lying to you if I didn't say I knew it happened," Chamberlain said. "Everyone's going to have their opinions. At least I'm talked about. It could be worse."
Sure. He could be optioned to the minors (not happening, barring a total spring-training meltdown). He could be traded (not right now, but far from impossible down the line).
It could be better, though, both for him and for those who expect more of him. Can this be the year that Joba and the rest of the world find common ground?
We're optimistic, so we won't say, "Fat chance." It just might happen.