New York Yankees' Joba Chamberlain pitches during today's spring training...

New York Yankees' Joba Chamberlain pitches during today's spring training workout at the George Steinbrenner field in Tampa Fl. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

SARASOTA, Fla. - Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said Thursday he still considers Joba Chamberlain a starting pitcher even though the righthander will begin the season in the bullpen after being beaten out by Phil Hughes for the role of fifth starter.

"He's a starter in the bullpen," Cashman said in a telephone interview. "He can do both. He's a starter who was just beaten out in the competition. That's what we honestly believe, but we only had one spot."

Chamberlain's return to the bullpen became official Thursday when manager Joe Girardi selected Hughes in the fifth-starter derby. Chamberlain will begin his transition with a one-inning outing Saturday.

"I think Joba could do either one, I really do," Girardi said. "But right now we think Phil's a little bit ahead of him as a starter."

Chamberlain is only 24 (Hughes is 23). So the book on his career has not yet been written, even if there are those who believe he never will be as good in the rotation as he was in the bullpen when he burst on to the big-league scene in 2007.

As he left the clubhouse at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa after a bullpen session, Chamberlain said: "You go with the flow. That's what I've done."

Chamberlain started 31 games last season and was 9-6 with a 4.78 ERA; many of his outings were shortened because of the Joba Rules. This was supposed to be the year the innings restrictions finally were taken off. But unless something changes, the Yankees have chosen not to see what a fully unleashed Chamberlain can do as a starter - for now.

"If someone wrote a story 'Joba is a failed starter' - that's just not true," Cashman said. "Bottom line, he's a major-league starting pitcher."

Asked if he could envision Chamberlain going into spring training next year as a rotation candidate, Cashman said: "I don't even want to muddy the waters" by speculating.

What about the Joba Rules? Do the Yankees regret building him up as a starter only to see Chamberlain back in the bullpen again?

"I don't think it's wasted," Girardi said. "There were things that we wanted to look at. We won a World Series. He was helpful - really, extremely helpful - when Chien-Ming Wang went down. He stepped up and was our fourth starter.

"Obviously, he's moving back to the bullpen possibly this year. He's had success there and we ask all of our guys to try and help us win another championship."

Girardi informed Chamberlain of his decision early Thursday morning. Girardi said Chamberlain's reaction was "whatever I can do to help."

Said Hughes: "[Chamberlain] just said congrats and that was about it . . . There was no bitterness or anything like that."

With Erik Boland in Tampa

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