It isn't often that a start on St. Patrick's Day has the ability to shape the entire career of a 24-year-old pitcher, but little about Joba Chamberlain's career has been routine. Since the moment he slipped on the pinstripes, he's been treated like a once in a lifetime talent that needed his own special rules to maximize the return on his abilities. This was supposed to be the year where it all came together for him as a member of the rotation.
Yet we're a little more than two weeks away from Opening Day and Chamberlain currently sits third, at best, in the race for the fifth starter spot. Phil Hughes pitched well again on Tuesday and has solidified the preferred starting position he got because of his own lauded status as a prospect. Alfredo Aceves, a reliever last year, has pitched even better than Hughes and comes with a doctor's note advocating a regular role as a starter as the best regimen for his balky back.
Chamberlain has flopped in his two spring outings. There were easy and reasonable explanations each time -- the flu in the opener and a desire to work on pitching inside -- but if this competition is truly about merit, explanations don't much matter. He'll have at least one more chance after Wednesday, but time is wearing thin according to his manager.
"You've got to pick it up," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "We've told him that you've got to pitch now. We gave you those first couple of starts to get under your belt, and now you've got to show us. You've got to pitch."
Lest you think that's somehow taken out of context, the quote comes from an article on the Yankee website. It doesn't take a masters in reading between the lines to see how much Wednesday's outing can impact Chamberlain's season and, quite possibly, his career.
Seem hyperbolic? Perhaps, but only a little. If Chamberlain flops again Wednesday and doesn't start the season in the Yankees rotation, it isn't all that likely that he's going to get back there at any point soon. He'll be used as a reliever in front of Mariano Rivera, a role he's played well in the past and a role that many have longed to see him fill since he arrived in the Bronx. Moving him out for a start here or there won't be an option and the next thing you know it's August and Chamberlain is ensconced in the pen.
That doesn't make it the right decision. In fact, it would repudiate just about everything the Yankees have done with Chamberlain over the last two seasons and his every appearance would be tinged with the feeling that they aren't getting everything out of him that was possible.
If he pitches well today, though, Chamberlain's right back in the mix. The aforementioned last two seasons leave little doubt that Aceves and Hughes need to beat him out for that final spot. If Chamberlain gives the Yankees a reason, they'll give him as much rope as he needs to prove them right.
By the time Wednesday's game is done, there will be folk songs being sung around the country. When they write one about the saga of Joba, this start will likely factor into whether Irish eyes are smiling when they sing it.