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Joba to competition for fifth starter: C'mon, bring it

His tone didn't suggest a gauntlet had been thrown down, but Joba Chamberlain's words made his attitude toward the competition very clear going into spring training.

"I hope they're ready because I worked my tail off to get where I'm at and I hope they did the same,'' Chamberlain said good-naturedly in the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan in early February before receiving a Thurman Munson award at the annual dinner honoring the former catcher.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman wasn't surprised by Chamberlain's bluntness.

"He's always had a great attitude,'' Cashman said this past week. "That's one thing with Joba: He's a competitor.''

One heading into a critical third full season in the majors.

Chamberlain, who started working out in Tampa Wednesday, will be involved in what is sure to be the most closely watched competition in spring training for the Yankees - the one for the fifth spot in the rotation. Phil Hughes, Chad Gaudin, Alfredo Aceves and Sergio Mitre also will vie for the spot.

That Chamberlain will be in the spotlight is nothing new. He's been nothing but headline fodder since his electric debut in the late summer of 2007.

Last season contained a career's worth of drama. Chamberlain, under the ever-present cloud of the Joba Rules, offered glimpses of why the Yankees insist they see him as starter material, but at the same time, he had his share of difficulties.

The second half started promisingly enough with three straight superb starts after the All-Star break, but four straight uneven ones followed.

Aug. 25 against the White Sox was the start of the implementation of some new Joba Rules as Chamberlain was pulled after three innings. The intent was to build him back up in time for the postseason while bringing him in under the innings limit that had been determined for him before the season.

Chamberlain didn't thrive under the tweaked Joba Rules, and at one point late in the season, Joe Girardi said his young pitcher needed to "step it up.''

Chamberlain ended up in the bullpen for the postseason, pitched effectively and, in another twist, rediscovered the blazing velocity he rarely was able to summon as a starter. After hitting the mid-to-high-90s with his fastball infrequently as a starter - the three straight outings after the All-Star break were a notable exception - Chamberlain did so with regularity in the postseason.

All of which leads to this season and the possibility that he could be back in the relief role that made him an instant cult figure in 2007. But that's only if Chamberlain falters in the upcoming competition, one he'll embark on knowing there will be no restrictions.

Chamberlain never used the Joba Rules as an excuse - and still hasn't - but admitted they weren't easy to deal with.

"As a competitor, you get frustrated at times, but at the end of the day, you also understand why they're doing it,'' he said. "I have the utmost respect for them for taking that time and going through the good and the bad with me. It's one of those things now where we did it, we're better for it, we all learned how to handle the situation. Now we can just go out and play the game and get the ball every fifth day and get 200-plus innings in.''

As for Hughes, Chamberlain said he had not spoken to his primary competition recently, but he reiterated his original message.

"I hope he got after it and is ready for spring training because it's going to be fun,'' Chamberlain said with a smile. "I think he has something to prove also. [He] had a great year last year in the bullpen and I think he wants to come out and prove something again this year. So it's going to be fun for us.''

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