Joaquin Benoit has departed for San Diego. Drew Smyly has been moved to the rotation to replace Doug Fister. The Tigers declined the option on former closer Jose Veras, and veteran Octavio Dotel's departure came sooner than he, or the Tigers cared to see at the start of the 2013 season. That's four relief pitchers- filling the three most critical roles at the back end of the Tiger bullpen, all gone.
Replacing Benoit seemed easy enough- this time- as Tiger GM Dave Dombrowski went out and signed Joe Nathan, the best available closer on the market for a guaranteed $ 20 million over two years. One of the set up roles will be entrusted to Bruce Rondon, the failed closer of this time last year, but resurgent reliever who was injured when the Tigers needed him the most last year, entering the post season.
It seemed quite certain that the Tigers needed to do more than just replace their closer, and that's where Joba Chamberlain fits in. The Tigers signed Joba to a one year, $ 2.5 million contract plus incentives, to fill a much needed role in a bullpen that has been shaky since the 2006 season, but has been pretty sound in the late innings in recent years.
We all know of Chamberlain. The once heralded, over hyped Yankee starting pitching prospect who was drafted in the first round of the 2006 draft out of the University of Nebraska. The 28 year old, hard throwing right hander comes to Detroit as damaged goods. A failed starter, promising reliever, and the ideal buy low, high reward type of signing that the Tigers hope- and desperately need- will regain the form that he showed in flashes of brilliance with the Yankees.
Chamberlain was the talk of the town when he was called up in 2007 given a job in the bullpen in 2008, and inserted into the Yankee rotation mid way through the season-subject of course to the "Joba Rules". That is, he was restricted from pitching on consecutive days, and was given an extra day off for each additional inning that he pitched. In his limited role, Chamberlain thrived, posting a 2.31 ERA in relief, and the pressure mounted to move him to the rotation, where he was destined for greatness. Or so they thought.
Yankee owner Hank Steinbrenner meddled Chamberlain into the rotation for part of the 2008 season, where he posted a 2.67 ERA in a dozen starts. He was then anointed as a starter for the 2009 season. 2009 was to be his grand arrival, as he had a rotation spot for the full season. It didn't go so well for him, as he posted a 4.75 ERA with a 1.55 WHIP in 31 starts. He was moved back to the bullpen for the post season, never to start again.
After losing out to Phil Hughes for the last spot in the Yankee rotation, Chamberlain continued to struggle in a relief role in 2010, although his second half was much, much better than the first, posting an ERA of 2.88 after the break. He was given a more prominent bullpen role in 2011, setting up for Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera in a seventh inning role, where he continued to be effective, with an ERA of 2.83 and a WHIP of 1.05 into the month of June. Those numbers would be welcome in any major league bullpen.
Just as Chamberlain seemingly found his groove, he was placed on the disabled list in June with an elbow injury after throwing 28 innings. His worst fears were realized when he had to undergo Tommy John surgery to repair the elbow, and he's been working his way back from that injury ever since.
Hoping to have him back for at least part of the 2012 season, the Yankees signed Chamberlain to a one year contract, but he injured his ankle, suffering an open dislocation on a trampoline before the start of the season. He didn't make it back until August, and managed to get 20 innings of relief work in for the season, just before he and the Yankees were swept out of the playoffs by the Detroit Tigers.
In 2013, Chamberlain made 45 appearances for the Yankees, losing his late inning role as he posted a 4.93 ERA with a WHIP of 1.74. 176 of the 198 batters he faced came in lower leverage- non save situations. No major league team wants those numbers from any pitcher. The Tigers are hoping that his struggles in 2013 can be attributed to his injuries, but he might be too far removed in time to excuse his recent performance.
Obviously, the Tigers feel that Chamberlain will be quite a bit better than he was last season, when he was among the worst relievers in the league in almost every category with the exception of strikeouts, and even that was down from his career numbers.
Odd numbers: Among the interesting trends we find among Joba's splits, we see that he has consistently performed better outside of New York. While he has allowed a line of .260 /.341 /.401 /.742 with a 4.42 ERA in Yankee stadium, his line on the road is 247 /.321 /.374 /.695 with a 3.20 ERA. The Tigers might also be encouraged by an opponents' batting average that was 20 points better and an OPS that was 32 points better in the second half of the 2013 season, but his September wasn't very attractive- so hold the optimism on that one.
Key to Success: The bottom line is that the big 28 year old Chamberlain has to regain the form that he showed in the second half of 2010 and first half of 2011, before his TJ surgery. If he's anything remotely similar to what he has been since, he'll be a total bust.
Outlook for 2014: Comments from Dave Dombrowski appear to indicate optimism that Bruce Rondon can step into the eighth inning set up role, which would leave Chamberlain as the favorite for the second set up role- mainly seventh inning duty. This is subject to a final decision by Brad Ausmus, of course. In reality, there is nothing so inconsistent in baseball as the performance of relief pitches, and Joba's role will be determined by how well he pitches by comparison with his fellow relievers.