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yankees countdown

Yankees Countdown: No. 10, Joba Chamberlain

The start of the baseball season is less than a month away. Every weekday until opening day, we'll be counting down, from No. 20 to No. 1, the most important Yankees players for the upcoming 2010 slate. Today, No. 10, pitcher Joba Chamberlain.

This was supposed to be Joba Chamberlain's big moment. After bouncing between the bullpen and the rotation for three years, 2010 was supposed to be the year he could pitch in a rotation like every other able-bodied big-leaguer, throwing as many innings as necessary, every fifth day. The Yankees have long gambled that Chamberlain could be a starter in the long term, even if it meant slowly stretching out his arm in the middle of the 2008 season, or gradually shutting him down during a 2009 season in which they had World Series aspirations. This was supposed to be the payoff.

And yet here we are, three years later and just two weeks from opening day, and we're still having the starter-or-reliever debate. At this point, we've seen enough from Joba — relief appearances both electric and catastrophic; starts both dominant and maddening — that anyone claiming to know what's really best for him or the team is just guessing. We have our guess (he's best off as a starter), and you have yours (feel free to express it in the comments). And soon enough, the Yankees will have theirs.

If the Yankees really knew whether Joba should be a starter or a reliever, they wouldn't be having auditions for the fifth spot in the rotation right now. (Or, depending on how you look at it, they would be, but he wouldn't be a candidate.) They're buying time, hoping that he gives them some indication this spring that proves, yes, he's ready to start, or, no, he can't handle extended outings. Depending on whom you believe, Joba might even be the co-favorite right now, which means that a couple of otherwise meaningless spring-training games over the next few days could alter the course of Joba's career. That seems insane to us, but, hey, maybe they'll stumble into the correct outcome, whatever that is. This still could be the year Joba becomes the pitcher everyone dreamed he'd be. But as is so often the case with Joba, the operative words there are "could be."

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Photo: Nick Laham/Getty Images