Joba Chamberlain returned to Detroit’s spring training facility, not completely clean shaven, but without the scraggly, overgrown beard that made him so easily identifiable with the Tigers last season.
"We’re definitely going to keep it a little bit restrained from what it was last year," the 29-year-old reliever said Tuesday. "I walked by a couple people. They didn’t recognize who I was."
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Chamberlain is back for a second season with Detroit after agreeing to a $1 million, one-year deal. The right-hander was a free agent this offseason, and although the Tigers ended up bringing him back, it doesn’t look like his role will be quite the same, at least initially. Chamberlain went 2-5 with a 3.57 ERA last year, but he struggled down the stretch, posting a 4.97 ERA after the All-Star break and allowing four earned runs over two postseason appearances.
Detroit seemed ready to move on without him — the Tigers still have Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria and Al Alburquerque from last year’s bullpen — but general manager Dave Dombrowski said Chamberlain told the Tigers in the last few days he was open to accepting a deal.
"We stayed in contact. He wanted to come back here. He liked it here," Dombrowski said. "He understood our circumstance of limited ability to pursue him as far as roster spots but also as far as dollars were concerned, but as time went on he decided he was in a position to accept our offer."
Chamberlain’s guaranteed base salary is down from $2.5 million last year. The performance bonuses will be the same as last season: $100,000 each for 35, 40, 45, 50 and 55 games. He exceeded all of those marks in 2014.
Detroit designated right-hander Chad Smith for assignment to clear space on its 40-man roster.
Chamberlain began last season in promising fashion and earned the eighth-inning role for the Tigers, where he remained even after Detroit acquired Soria in a July trade. Chamberlain finished the regular season with 63 innings, his most since 2010. That alone was an accomplishment after elbow and ankle operations had limited him previously, while he was with the New York Yankees.
He seemed to relish the opportunity to grow his facial hair after leaving the more buttoned-down Yankees and joining the Tigers. The chatty reliever was popular in Detroit’s clubhouse, a fact manager Brad Ausmus said played a role in his return.
"He’s a good teammate, he is well liked," Ausmus said. "If he was a guy that players didn’t like in the clubhouse, I don’t think he’d be here."
Chamberlain’s season ended on a sour note. In his final appearance, he took the mound in the eighth inning of Game 2 of the AL Division Series at Baltimore, with the Tigers up 6-3. After retiring the first batter, Chamberlain allowed a hit batter and two singles before being pulled. The Orioles ended up scoring four runs in the inning.
"I feel like I didn’t finish the season the way I wanted to and we have unfinished business as a team, and I personally do," Chamberlain said. "Started off well and at the end, I didn’t finish the way I wanted to."
Detroit is hoping for a better performance from its bullpen this year. Specifically, the Tigers are hoping a healthier Soria will be solid and that Nathan can rebound from an erratic 2014. They also are looking forward to having Bruce Rondon back after he missed last season because of an elbow injury.
Dombrowski said the Tigers aren’t bringing Chamberlain back to fill the eighth-inning role, but now Ausmus has another option in relief.
"Right now Soria’s kind of the eighth-inning guy," Ausmus said. "But you have three pitchers in Joba, Rondon and Alburquerque who certainly have the ability to pitch in the seventh or even the eighth."
Ausmus said he was surprised Chamberlain was still on the market at this stage.