LAKELAND, Florida — Joba Chamberlain has already noticed a couple obvious differences after leaving the New York Yankees to sign with Detroit.
"A different uniform and a lot of facial hair," the big right-hander said.
After seven eventful seasons with the Yankees, Chamberlain signed a $2.5 million, one-year deal with Detroit, joining a retooled bullpen that also includes new closer Joe Nathan. Now far removed from his days as a hard-throwing phenom, Chamberlain is looking forward to contributing to another talented team with plenty of expectations.
"Sometimes change isn't the easiest thing, but sometimes it's the best," Chamberlain said.
Chamberlain's career began amid plenty of fanfare, when he averaged over a strikeout an inning in 2007 and 2008 for the Yankees. The big question then was whether his long-term future was as a reliever or a starter. He made 31 starts in 2009 and finished with a 4.75 ERA. Then it was back to the bullpen, where he's spent the last four seasons.
Chamberlain's new contract includes performance bonuses: $100,000 each for 35, 40, 45, 50 and 55 games. He missed almost the entire month of May last year because of a strained right oblique. Chamberlain was limited to 49 games over the previous two years because of elbow and ankle operations. He's posted an ERA over 4.00 in four of the last five seasons.
Still, Chamberlain says he left New York with fond memories.
"I spent my whole adult life in a Yankee uniform," he said. "New York was home. Experienced the old stadium, opened the new stadium, got to win a World Series. Through the ups and the downs and everything that happened, I was just so thankful for the opportunity."
Now free from the Yankees' restrictions on facial hair, Chamberlain has been sporting a beard at spring training. He pitched a scoreless inning Thursday against Atlanta — but he was not part of the pitching lineup when the Yankees came to Lakeland on Friday to face Detroit.
Chamberlain figures it's only a matter of time before he's on the mound facing his former team. In fact, he's already aware of when Detroit makes its lone visit to Yankee Stadium in the 2014 regular season.
"It'll be August," he said, drawing laughs because of how quickly he could recite that particular part of the schedule. "Four-game series. Monday through Thursday."
The Tigers and Yankees both expect to be contenders, and Detroit hopes its new-look bullpen will pay dividends. Joaquin Benoit and Jose Veras left in the offseason, and Detroit signed Chamberlain and closer Joe Nathan. The Tigers are also moving left-hander Drew Smyly from the bullpen to the rotation, and they acquired southpaw reliever Ian Krol in a trade.
Nathan is baseball's active leader with 341 saves, taking over that distinction now that Mariano Rivera has retired. Rivera, of course, closed games for the same bullpen that Chamberlain was a part of in New York.
Chamberlain, who faced so many questions earlier in his career about his role, now has a fairly straightforward objective.
"Like I tell you guys every year, I don't know. I'm just going to go out and pitch," Chamberlain said. "Obviously, get the ball to Joe in some way, shape or form. I've had the opportunity to work with two great closers in the last 10 years."