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Yankees 2011 Spring Training: Joba Chamberlain Fighting For A Job

Joba Chamberlain debuted with the New York Yankees in 2007, throwing 100 miles-per-hour fastballs, unhittable sliders and gyrating on the mound like a mad man. He pitche to a spectacular 0.38 ERA , striking out 34 hitters in 24 innings over 19 relief appearances, allowing just 12 hits and one measly earned run. Stardom was forecast. Joba would be the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera, the next great Yankee closer. Or, he would become the anchor to their starting rotation for a decade or so.

Fast forward to four years later and we know things have not worked out that way. How far has Chamberlain's star fallen in the eyes of the Yankees? Well, this far.

As pitchers and catchers report to 2011 Spring Training today, General Manager Brian Cashman bluntly assessed Chamberlain's role with the team by saying Joba is "not a lock" to make the Opening Day roster.

"Anybody who has [minor league] options is not a lock for anything," Cashman said when asked by The Post if the 25-year-old was a roster-spot lock. "Any player with options has to re-earn everything. You earn more or you earn less — New York or Scranton [Triple-A]. I fully expect Joba to be in our bullpen. If not, he would have worked his way out of it."

Maybe that is just posturing by Cashman. Maybe he is simply trying to light a fire under Chamberlain, use the threat of the minor leagues to get Chamberlain to tap into vast potential everyone saw just a few short seasons ago. Maybe, however, it is a real threat.

Over the past couple of seasons Chamberlain has not pitched like a guy to whom the Yankees should be guaranteeing anything. He has gone from set-up man to Rivera to starting pitcher, back to eighth-inning set-up man, to a middle-inning guy and this year to a pitcher who looks like he will have to fight for one of the last spots on the staff. Since 2008, the reality is that no matter the role each season it seems his role on the staff has shrunk in terms of responsibility.

There will always be the argument that the Yankees screwed up Chamberlain's golden arm by bouncing him back-and-forth between the bullpen and starting pitcher, especially using the 'Joba Rules' to shorten his starts and limit his innings.

The argument that makes more sense is that the shoulder injury Chamberlain suffered in August of 2008 was more severe than the team ever really said. Since then the 98-100 mph fastball is gone, and the unhittable slider is not the same. They have been replaced by a guy with a straight low-90s fastball on most days who has a good, but not great, slider.

Cashman admitted during the offseason that Joba just has not been the same guy since that injury. The numbers, provided by the New York Post, illustrate the point.

Since walking off the mound in Arlington, Texas, on Aug. 4 that year with a barking right shoulder, Chamberlain has been average in several ways.

In 2401⁄3 innings since then, he has allowed 249 hits and posted a 4.53 ERA. His strikeout-to-walk ratio of 224-101 is solid and 224 Ks in 2401⁄3 innings is good.

There have also been whispers that maybe Joba never worked as hard as he could have. We'll see, He apparently installed a gym in his home this offseason and added 10-15 pounds of muscle.

As unfathomable as it may have seemed a couple of seasons ago, could Chamberlain's best value to the Yankees be as trade bait. Scouts, including one quoted by the Post, has said throughout the offseason that Joba is still an attractive trade candidate and that there are teams who think he could still be effective as a starting pitcher. Maybe using Chamberlain as a piece of a trade package might bring the Yankees an established starter like Cleveland's Fausto Carmona or, thinking bigger, a package that might entice the Minnesota Twins to deal Francisco Liriano.

Really amazing when you think of where Chamberlain was in 2007 that his value to the Yankees has come to this.