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Tigers bring back Joba: 'We have unfinished business'

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Joba Chamberlain discusses his return to the Tigers Tuesday.

Lakeland, Fla. – The beard is gone, but Joba Chamberlain is back.

"For me, I feel like I didn't finish the season the way I wanted to," said the 29-year-old right-hander who signed a one-year contract with the Tigers Tuesday for a reported $1 million. "We have unfinished business as a team and I do personally, as well.

"I started off well and at the end, I didn't finish the way I wanted. For the city, for Mr. I (owner Mike Ilitch), it's something that as soon as I signed last year, winning for this city is something I want to do."

Re-signing Chamberlain was far off the Tigers' radar this offseason, for several reasons. With an expectedly healthy Bruce Rondon, Joakim Soria back for a full season, Al Alburquerque and veteran closer Joe Nathan, the back end of the bullpen was set coming into camp.

And Chamberlain, who went 2-5 with a 3.57 ERA and 1.286 WHIP, numbers skewed negatively by severe dip in production in the second-half, was said to be seeking a multi-year deal worth at least twice as much as the Tigers could offer.

Yet, the Tigers maintained contact with him all winter.

"We talked more in generalities because we were never actually pursuing a contract," president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "Actually, I didn't think it would take place. We liked him, we thought he did a good job for us, I just couldn't imagine it would get to that point. But it did."

Chamberlain, though he said he did get a few more lucrative offers, contacted the Tigers on Friday and said he was open to discussing their one-year deal. He said in the end the Tigers felt like home, like family, and the comfort of that outweighed whatever extra dollars he might have earned elsewhere.

"I talked to other teams, but this was best for my family, best for myself and the big thing, my son was really comfortable, and that made me comfortable," Chamberlain said. "We always talked, we always had conversations and we knew what the situation was dollars-wise. It just ended up, it worked perfectly.

"This isn't about money, it isn't about anything other than the fact that I get to play with this group of guys and this group of coaches and for Mr. I. I love playing for them, I love putting the D on, love being part of Detroit and everything their history has."

Manager Brad Ausmus, long a Chamberlain supporter, was pulling for the team to re-sign him – both for personal and professional reasons.

"I think he's a fun-loving guy and he takes the ball when you ask him to," Ausmus said. "He pitches through pain. And while people want to point to one game in the playoffs (actually two rough outings in the ALDS against the Orioles), where would we have been last season without Joba Chamberlain?"

In two post-season appearances, Chamberlain was raked for four runs in one-third of an inning. In the second half of the season, his last 28 appearances, his ERA ballooned to 4.97 and the opposition hit .271 against him.

The consensus on that – Chamberlain was overworked. The 63 innings, most of them in the first half of the season, was the most he's pitched since 2010.

"He pitched very well the first half of the season and the second half he was not as good," Dombrowski said. "But we also know he pitched a lot last year and he hadn't done that. When we originally signed him, we didn't sign him as our eighth-inning guy. He ended up as our eighth-inning guy.

"We're not signing him to be our eighth-inning guy this year. We have Soria there, we have Rondon, and we have Alburquerque who will be in the mix. This will give Brad a little more depth and it will help the organization over the long haul."

Chamberlain is fine with any role he is assigned, but he doesn't accept being overworked as an excuse. To him, it's just another way of saying he didn't finish the job.

"It was the first time I was completely healthy and when you go through a workload like that, it takes a toll," he said. "But that's not an excuse. I have to do my job better. I know that. There's things I can change. Having two healthy years with offseason workouts, I can take bits and pieces of what helped me and what hurt me."

Dombrowski, at the end of last season, acknowledged that Chamberlain had been dealing with some personal issues but again, Chamberlain wasn't accepting excuses.

"We all have personal issues but at the end of the day, it doesn't change the fact I didn't do my job, and I didn't do my job at times in the second half," he said. "You deal with it and you grow from it and you try to be better for it. I am going to be a better pitcher for what I went through and come back stronger because of it."

Ausmus maintained Tuesday that the back end of the bullpen would be Soria in the eighth and Nathan in the ninth.

"Joba still has the ability to pitch late in games," he said. "Soria is still our eighth-inning guy, but you have a few pitchers now in Joba, Rondon and Alby, who have the ability to pitch in either the seventh or the eighth."

The Tigers designated right-hander Chad Smith for assignment to make room for Chamberlain. The Tigers have 10 days to either move him to another team or reassign him elsewhere in the organization.

Chamberlain's presences also changes the outlook for right-hander relievers Alex Wilson and Josh Zeid, who were vying for one of the final bullpen spots.

"It certainly makes it more difficult at this point to crack the opening day roster," Ausmus said. "I liked our depth before we brought Joba back. I like our depth way better than I did at this point last year. And as we learned last year, things happen, injuries and everything else.

"For those guys, even though there is one less spot, you have to act as if you are still going after that one spot. There may be fewer opportunities, but things can change."