- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Several times this spring, Joba Chamberlain has said he believes his Tommy John surgery was "a blessing in disguise."
He may turn out to be absolutely right, although not for the reasons he thinks.
Chamberlain, who had the surgery last June, repeated on Tuesday what he has been saying all winter, that the elbow operation allowed him to take a much-needed break from the stresses of major league baseball, and afforded him an opportunity he would never have had otherwise -- the chance to see his son attend his first day of school.
Those are wonderful things for Joba and if there are positives to having one's moneymaker sliced open and a ligament replaced, they would certainly qualify.
For the Yankees, however, the benefits may be just as great, if not quite so obvious.
Now, with Joba expected to be out at least until late June and possibly until after the All-Star break, they too get an opportunity to experience something they might never have been able to otherwise.
Like Joba-Palooza, Part II.
When Chamberlain arrived in Yankeeland in early August 2007, the team was on the verge of falling out of the postseason hunt and Yankee Stadium was starting to sound like the world's largest open-air public library.
But the big farmboy from Nebraska with the bigger fastball shot some life into the place and by the end of the season, the Yankees were playing in October once again. Joba was not the only reason for their revival, of course, but he was an important one.
Five years later, with his career at a crossroads, he has a chance to repeat his own history.
By the time Joba is ready to return, the Yankees might be more than ready to welcome him back. They might very well need him.
Because as we often see over the course of a baseball season, things that seem carved out of granite in April sometimes turn to sand in August.
The Yankees bullpen, now so deep and stocked there would hardly seem to be a place for Joba if he were healthy, might be begging for him in a couple of months.
And if Joba returns the way a lot of pitchers do after Tommy John surgery, it might feel like August 2007 all over again.
Joba threw 16 pitches off a full mound -- as opposed to that oddity known as the "half-mound'' -- for the first time in his recovery at Yankees camp on Tuesday.
With the enthusiasm that has always made him seem younger than his age, whether as a 21-year-old in 2007 or as a veteran going on 27 now, Chamberlain acted as if the Yankees will have to handcuff him to his locker in order to keep him in Tampa when the rest of the squad heads to New York in April.
The reality, of course, is that Chamberlain, who has never admitted to even a twinge of pain through the entire ordeal, will need every bit of the 12 months or so that most pitchers do to return after Tommy John.
In that case, you can pencil him in for anywhere between mid-June to mid-July. And between now and then, who knows what will happen to the Yankees, where they will be in the standings and what their needs will be.
Right now, Joba has no defined role, having lost his status as heir apparent to Mariano Rivera, his shot at becoming a starting pitcher, his role as the eighth-inning setup man (a job that is now the property of David Robertson) and his role as the seventh-inning guy (that title now belongs to Rafael Soriano).
But who is to say that five months from now, Soriano will not have injured his shoulder again, as he did last July, or that Robertson will still be healthy and performing the way he did in 2011, or, the most dire scenario of all, that Rivera's body will suddenly decide to remind him that is, after all, 42 years old?
If he returns with the kind of fastball that electrified Yankee Stadium in 2007 -- and these days, pitchers sometimes come back throwing harder after the operation than they had before -- Joba could step into any one of those roles.
After his bullpen session on Tuesday, Chamberlain gushed about how great his rebuilt right arm felt. "It's a new arm for me, that's how it feels,'' he said. "They fixed what was there, and then Dr. (James) Andrews went ahead and added some extra strength to it. It's a new year, and it's a whole new chapter of what I would like to accomplish here and help this team.''
The Yankees know they need to put the brakes on Joba, who will want to come back as soon as possible and possibly, sooner than he should. They haven't put a radar gun on him and he hasn't even spun the ball yet, so there's still a long way to go. But from the sound of things, Joba Chamberlain is on the way back, and probably right around the point of the season when the Yankees could use him the most.
"I can tell you it's not going to be three to four (more) months,'' he said. "That puts us out a long time. You can't count your
chickens before they're hatched, but I feel like the work we put in,
it could be six or eight weeks. You never know.''
There's really no reason to rush. Right now, in the first week of full-squad workouts, the Yankees bullpen looks like one of the strongest and deepest units on the club.
But five months and 100 or so real games from now?
That might be the perfect time to debut Joba-Palooza, Chapter Two.
Joba Chamberlain's return from surgery will come at right time for Yankees.