Tigers sign Chamberlain to one-year deal
Former Yankees reliever has battled through various injuries over past three seasons
DETROIT -- Somewhere between Joel Zumaya's 103-mph burst upon the American League in 2006 and Bruce Rondon's 102-mph fastball out of the Tigers bullpen last season, Joba Chamberlain had his turn as the rookie relief sensation. His time just came under a lot more publicity in New York, not Detroit.
That time came and went, leaving Chamberlain to spend the past few years looking for the next stage. After seven years in Yankees pinstripes, he gets the fresh start he wanted with a one-year, $2.5 million contract, and the Tigers get their insurance policy behind the hard-throwing sophomore Bruce Rondon.
Somewhere in that setup is a statement about the mercurial nature of bullpens, one former sensation supporting the next one. It's not a surefire veteran arm to fill out the Tigers' retinkered bullpen, just as it's not the high-profile opportunity once expected out of Chamberlain years ago when he dominated hitters. For both, however, it was a moderate-risk, high-reward setup they decided was worth taking.
The deal, reached Thursday as the Winter Meetings wrapped up and announced on Friday, includes $500,000 in performance incentives based on appearances.
"We've liked Joba for years," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "We feel he's a great addition with his experience. He can fill the role of pitching in the eighth inning if [manager] Brad [Ausmus] wants to use him there. He's been in a lot of big games in the Yankees organization."
Some of those big games were memorable, with Chamberlain's fastball approaching triple digits. His rise came fast in 2007, and his quest to get back there has been slow. As far as Chamberlain is concerned, those days are history.
"We're starting a new chapter here," Chamberlain said. "Everything's in the past. I'm so fortunate for Mr. Ilitch and Mr. Dombrowski to give me this opportunity. The past is the past, and I've learned from it."
If not for the past, of course, this deal wouldn't have happened. The Tigers rounded out their bullpen with an upside play, taking a chance that a short-term deal and work from pitching coach Jeff Jones can draw back some of Chamberlain's better form.
It's the kind of work that Jones performed in his old job as a longtime pitching coach at Triple-A Toledo. Chamberlain's side was aware of it, too. His agent, Jim Murray, also represents Rick Porcello, who has worked with Jones for the past five seasons.
"There was a lot of interest and there were opportunities out there for potentially more dollars," Murray said. "However, the money was not a driving factor in this. This was more about opportunity. This was more about Joba feeling comfortable."
That proved impossible for him in New York. The 28-year-old Chamberlain spent the past three years working through injuries while trying to regain the form that made him a fastball-throwing, radar-gun star in his early years. He was a revelation in the Yankees bullpen late in the 2007 season, then tossed 100 quality innings between starting and relieving in 2008.
After rotator-cuff tendinitis near the end of that season and a nine-win season in the Yankees rotation in 2009, however, Chamberlain's power arm showed signs of mortality. He moved back to the bullpen with some success in 2010, and had a statistically strong start in 2011, but elbow trouble led to Tommy John surgery that summer.
"It was one of those things you can't really expect everybody's injuries to be the same," Chamberlain said. "You have to get comfortable and you kind of have to learn your arm again and learn what to do when to pull back. I've been fortunate enough since that surgery to get healthy."
While working his way back from surgery, Chamberlain sustained a potentially career-ending left ankle dislocation while playing with his son at a recreation center. He recovered in time to pitch in 22 games down the stretch that season, but went through a nightmarish 2013 campaign that included a right oblique strain.
Chamberlain went 2-1 with a 4.93 ERA in 2013, allowing 47 hits over 42 innings with 26 walks and 38 strikeouts. His fastball, which averaged 97 mph as a rookie in 2007 while frequently approaching triple digits, has averaged around 94-95 mph the last few years according to Fangraphs. His command of it -- as well as a once-nasty slider -- seemingly suffered this year, evidenced in the walk and hit totals, but he said he felt life on it again.
"I felt I consistently got better with my fastball," Chamberlain said of this past season, "just being able to throw it more and have more confidence in it, knowing you put in the hard work to continue to make your elbow strong. I just felt it consistently got better, and the slider got back. I feel great with it, just being able to start playing catch."
Tigers scouts saw Chamberlain down the stretch during their season-ending advance work, providing reports on the state of his game. Dombrowski said he and other team officials met with Chamberlain recently to get a read on his state of mind.
If the fresh start and Jones' work reset Chamberlain's career, the Tigers gain another right-handed power arm for their bullpen alongside Rondon, Al Alburquerque and Luke Putkonen. If Chamberlain struggles, the Tigers will have to find another mix to bridge the innings between their vaunted starters and new closer Joe Nathan. And while adding a proved closer like Nathan was the Tigers' top priority this offseason, the Tigers had more of an issue with their middle and setup relief last season once Joaquin Benoit took over in the ninth inning full time.
Chamberlain's deal completes the bullpen moves, Dombrowski said. It also comes just over a month after the Tigers declined a one-year, $4 million option on Jose Veras, whom they had acquired July 30. At his peak, Chamberlain was a better reliever than Veras. The last few years, Veras has outpitched him.
The Tigers seem to be looking more toward the upside. Asked if they preferred Chamberlain over Veras, even though the timing of the moves differed, Dombrowski said, "Yes, we did.
"No offense to Jose Veras, because he's a solid guy and we liked him and we had a chance to bring him back. We like Joba. We like his abilities. We had our choice with a lot of guys out there on one-year deals, maybe even a two-year deal in a few cases. We've liked him in the past. Our scouts like him."
To create a spot on the 40-man roster for Chamberlain, the Tigers designated infielder Danny Worth for assignment. The 28-year-old Worth, the Tigers' second-round pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, played 115 games in the big leagues over the last four years, but never won the utility infield job. He was among the last cuts in Spring Training this past season, sustained a heel injury, then didn't get back to Detroit until September.
Additionally, infielder Dixon Machado cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A Toledo.