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02/03/10 7:00 AM EST

Joba ready to compete for rotation spot

Righty says his mind is only on starting as he readies for camp

NEW YORK -- Joba Chamberlain will pack his bags for Spring Training intent upon making the Yankees' decisions a little bit easier. He's set to arrive next week, expecting to lock up the fifth spot in the rotation before the end of camp.

The Yankees have told Chamberlain to prepare to be a starter heading into this spring, and he will be stepping into an open competition with at least four other candidates to round out the staff.

It should make for compelling theater, and no matter which pitcher eventually comes out on top, Chamberlain believes it could make everyone involved just a little bit better.

"It's something that's going to be a battle," Chamberlain said. "The greatest part about it is it's not only going to make guys fight for that No. 5 spot, but it's going to make our team better. We're going to push each other and continue to try to outwork each other.

"That's the greatest part about this game; not only do you push one another to do better, but the team is going to be better for it. Whatever happens, happens. I hope they're ready, because I worked my tail off to get where I'm at and I hope they do the same."

In addition to Chamberlain, the Yankees plan to consider Phil Hughes, Alfredo Aceves, Chad Gaudin and Sergio Mitre for their fifth rotation spot, supplementing a rotation that already has CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte and Javier Vazquez written in for the first four spots.

Manager Joe Girardi declined to name an early favorite on Saturday, offering this even-handed assessment: "We'll put the best guy that we feel can fill that spot and give us the best chance to win."

Chamberlain, 24, was 9-6 with a 4.75 ERA in 31 starts plus one relief appearance during the 2009 regular season, allowing 167 hits and 83 earned runs in 157 1/3 innings. He walked 76 and struck out 133 before converting back into a reliever for the postseason.

One positive in Chamberlain's favor for 2010 is that finally, three years after splashing onto the scene as a carefully handled reliever, the Yankees have deemed him to be free of all the "Joba Rules" and innings limitations.

"As a competitor, you definitely get frustrated at times. At the end of the day, you also understand why they're doing it. I have the utmost respect for them for taking that time and going through the good and the bad with me."
-- Joba Chamberlain

Those rules were an issue last year, as the Yankees tried juggling his starts and cutting short his outings with less than desirable results. But Chamberlain said that he has "peace of mind" knowing exactly what his assignment will be and that the training wheels will be completely removed.

"As a competitor, you definitely get frustrated at times," Chamberlain said. "At the end of the day, you also understand why they're doing it. I have the utmost respect for them for taking that time and going through the good and the bad with me.

"It's one of the things now where we did it, we're better for it, we all learned how to handle the situation. Now we can just go out, play the games, get the ball every fifth day and get 200-plus innings in."

There is still a large contingent of the baseball public that believes Chamberlain is best suited for the bullpen, where he could be a dominant setup man or even the eventual successor to closer Mariano Rivera. Chamberlain takes that praise as a compliment, but says his mind is set on starting until the Yankees tell him otherwise.

"It's a question that is always going to be asked, but it's one of those things when, as a competitor, you want to be out there every fifth day and get that opportunity to fight and claw for your teammates," Chamberlain said.

"That's what you're there for. I want that opportunity. I have to go out there and prove it, and I understand that. Nothing is handed to me and I like it that way, because that's the way it's been my whole life and my whole career. I'm going to go get the bull by the horns and get after it in Spring Training, and see what happens."

Not that he hasn't considered what it might be like to take over for Rivera, whom Chamberlain said -- half tongue-in-cheek -- might be able to pitch another 10 seasons.

"You always do, being down there for two stints with him, and to see how good he is," Chamberlain said. "There's going to have to be somebody that comes behind him and replaces the legacy that is Mariano. If that opportunity comes, great. If we sit down and they say that, then we'll get after it. But right now, I think we're going to go with the starting thing."

Chamberlain said that he plans on arriving at the George M. Steinbrenner Field complex in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, a week in advance of the mandatory reporting date for pitchers and catchers.

But the clock has already started, coming back from a World Series run that brought the Yankees into the month of November. Chamberlain said he played catch with Sabathia on Monday in the lefty's New Jersey yard, and said that his arm is feeling the best it has in a long time.

"We were both talking about how great we feel," Chamberlain said. "I think that's the greatest advantage of playing so late in the year -- you don't really lose that much. You continue to play catch and work out.

"It was a little weird starting everything up in December, because last year we started in November, but everything feels great as far as playing catch and doing all of those things. It's gone better than expected."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.