Though an offseason of change has left the Detroit Tigers rife with question marks at plenty of positions, quietly the biggest, most important issue this season could be the contributions of Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen.
Wednesday, Dave Dombrowski spoke at the Detroit Sports Broadcasters' Association's annual Tigers luncheon, and was asked a bevy of questions about the bullpen concerning battles for spots and the hopeful, continued emergence of Bruce Rondon. Most telling, however, was Dombrowski's longer, detailed answer to a question about what to expect from Chamberlain.
"We've liked Joba in the past two years, post Tommy John," Dombrowski said, noting that the team had long possessed a fondness for Chamberlain's game. "We think he's in the best shape of his career." Considering Chamberlain sustained a horrific-looking ankle injury two years ago and recently had Tommy John surgery, that was a very telling statement. Dombrowski also noted the team felt Chamberlain's once exceptional fastball is "back," a pitch which many think has failed him in the past after rampant overuse.
Most important, Dombrowski emphasized what everyone else was thinking regarding the move when it happened over a month ago. "We thought a change of scenery would be beneficial." In New York, Chamberlain had worn out his welcome after the assumption that he failed as the rightful heir to Mariano Rivera's ninth inning throne. As a result, he was often a convenient whipping boy for fans eager to pin the entire downfall of the Yankees' bullpen on his broad shoulders. Now in Detroit, the hefty righty gets a chance for a new start in an environment where he won't face nearly as much pressure or expectations.
Quietly, Chamberlain might be the biggest key to the success of Detroit's bullpen in 2014. New closer Joe Nathan will figure to be a stabilizer in the ninth, and the lightly experienced Rondon will be counted on to fill a role in the eighth, leaving Chamberlain as the veteran wild card who can pitch in either the seventh inning or eighth inning with the tools to dominate in both. Dombrowski indicated that Chamberlain's versatility was yet another reason the team liked him, considering he's pitched in both roles in the past with success.
A healthy rebound season from Chamberlain would fill in plenty of the blanks and provide Detroit's bullpen with some of the teeth they've lacked in the past. With Joaquin Benoit moving on to San Diego, Phil Coke's contributions up in the air and young players such as Rondon, Luke Putkonen Jose Ortega and newcomer Ian Kroll representing unknown commodities, Detroit badly needed another veteran contributor capable of stepping up consistently to pair with Nathan.
The fact that nobody else is betting on anything from Chamberlain only serves to make him more dangerous, all things considered. He fills a niche role in Detroit, which is a much quieter and accepting market than New York, and can do what he's asked without the pressure of having to perform in one singular role.
"We're excited to have him," Dombrowski said. Fans should share that sentiment about the impact Chamberlain can bring to a remade Detroit bullpen searching for a new identity.
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