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Should the Tigers bring back Joba Chamberlain?

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Joba Chamberlain was a valuable member of the Tigers' bullpen last season, but remains unsigned. Should the Tigers bring him back for an encore performance?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

When the Tigers signed Joba Chamberlan to a one-year contract for $2.5 million plus incentives, the former New York Yankees top prospect was hoping he could demonstrate that he had fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and would be able to sign a multi-year contract after the season.

Chamberlain has had no success looking for a two year contract, however, and has rejected multiple offers from teams he did not want to join, according to FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal. With spring training only weeks away, Chamberlain might be looking for a one-year contract with incentives, such as the one he signed with Detroit last season. Chamberlain picked up $500,000 in bonuses for his work in 2014, meeting every incentive target on the list.

For much of the 2014 season, Chamberlain was everything that the Tigers had hoped he would be. Through the All-Star break he had claimed the eighth inning set-up role behind closer Joe Nathan with a 2.63 ERA, 2.40 fielding independent pitching (FIP), 1.14 walks plus hits per inning (WHIP) and 40 strikeouts in 37 2/3 innings. He was the most used, and the most valuable pitcher in the Detroit bullpen. It was looking like he was headed for a nice contract after the season.

The second half of the season was not so kind to Chamberlain. His ERA jumped to 4.97, strikeouts dropped from 9.56 to 6.75-per-nine innings, his walks increased from 2.87 to 4.86 per-nine frames, and his WHIP soared from 1.14 to 1.50. He was not the same pitcher that he was in the first half. Inexplicably, his manager left him in the eighth inning role, even after the club traded two of their best prospects for Joakim Soria, one of the best relief pitchers in the league.

The conventional wisdom was that Chamberlain ran out of gas. That is plausible. After working just 42 innings with the Yankees a year earlier, he pitched over 63 innings, a 50% increase in his work load. He had less than a full season to recover from his injuries, which included surgery on his ankle, although he was two years removed from Tommy John surgery.

As Rosenthal notes, Chamberlain also had serious family issues during the season, attending to his mother, who was ill in Nebraska.

"Joba’s had some issues family-wise," Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski told the Detroit Free Press after the team clinched the AL Central. "His mom’s been very sick. People don’t realize how that has affected him at times."

Meanwhile, the Tigers have given Chamberlain's set-up job to Soria. They're hoping that Bruce Rondon will be healthy and effective for a full season to pitch the seventh inning, which is the role where Chamberlain was most effective while in New York. They're also hoping that a 40-year-old Nathan will be a better pitcher than he was in 2014, when he posted a 5.61 ERA with a 1.51 WHIP and seven blown saves.

The Tigers bullpen might be just fine if Nathan regains his old form, if Soria can avoid the disabled list, and if Rondon remains healthy and is effective for a full season. But there is a lot that can go wrong. If Chamberlain could function with a reduced work load, and is willing to earn his salary with a strong performance, he could be an asset, or at least provide some insurance.

In addition to Chamberlain, closers Rafael Soriano and Frankie Rodriguez remain unsigned, as well as former Tigers prospect, Burke Badenhop. Soriano and Rodriguez would be looking for a significantly higher salary than Chamberlain or Badenhop, and may not settle for a one year contract in a non-closer role.

Tigers' President, Dave Dombrowski has said that he is happy with the personnel that he has in the bullpen. But then, he said the same thing about the outfield, and then traded Rick Porcello to get Yoenis Cespedes. Could he be waiting out the market to see if any pitchers fall through the cracks at a price that is too good to pass up? It's not like they don't need the help.