The New York Yankees will enter spring training with a virtually set starting rotation. That is a luxury among major-league clubs but there are some concerns about the staff and how effective it will be. Let’s examine each starter individually in a five-part series.
PHIL HUGHES (16-13, 4.19 ERA)
If you were casting a James Bond movie would you select Owen Wilson for the role? If you were casting a new dramatic Broadway play would you cast Zach Rogan?
Of course, the answer would be no to both. Yet the Yankees still insist on miscasting Phil Hughes as a starting pitcher.
They can point to his two full seasons as a starter in which he is a collective 34-21 with a 4.20 ERA. Considering the fact Hughes came up through the Yankees’ minor-league system as a highly touted starter, why shouldn’t he be a starter?
The reason he shouldn’t is not because of what Hughes has accomplished. It has more to do what he has failed to accomplish that limits his ceiling as a quality starter.
Hughes, 26, is basically a two-pitch starter: Fastball and curve. Efforts to add a cutter and a change-up have been met with mixed results. There is no doubt that with good run support he can remain a successful starter. But think back to a time when Hughes had his best success with the Yankees.
That was in 2009 when Hughes was brought up from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre as a fill-in starter and then, out of necessity, was shifted to the bullpen. Hughes’ two-pitch assortment was perfect for the bullpen and his fastball got some added zip during his short stints. Gradually manager Joe Girardi shifted him into the setup role in front of Mariano Rivera.
Hughes was simply sensational. His ERA, his WHIP and his strikeout rate were all better than Rivera’s in 2009 and Hughes became a major reason why the Yankees won their 27th world championship that season.
There is one huge reason why Hughes has not pitched out of the bullpen since and it has nothing to do with Hughes. It has to do with the failure of Joba Chamberlain to make it as a starting pitcher. Once the Yankees determined that Chamberlain was not suited to start they were not about to do the same with Hughes.
The Yankees did not want to suffer the indignity of having both of their prized homegrown youngsters in the bullpen. Besides, the bullpen has been crowded with hard throwers behind Rivera and Chamberlain like Rafael Soriano and David Robertson.
So Hughes became a starter in 2010 and he had so much initial success (he sported an 11-2 record at the All-Star break and he made the American League All-Star team) that those minor-league scout comparisons to Roger Clemens did not seem so farfetched anymore.
But after the break, the league caught up to him and he was a very pedestrian 7-6 the rest of the way.
High hopes for him in 2011 were very quickly dashed when he showed up to spring training with a noticeable drop in velocity. After getting blasted early and often in April, the Yankees placed him on the disabled list with weakness in his right shoulder. Though Hughes did return late that season, his 5-5 record and 5.79 ERA cast a lot of doubt on his future.
But Hughes worked his way back last season and he did pitch well enough to tie with Hiroki Kuroda for the team lead in victories with 16. Hughes also matched his season ERA of 4.19 in 2010. So not all the numbers were bad or disastrous.
There are still some numbers Hughes with which he can’t be pleased.
Hughes was vulnerable to the longball as the 35 home runs he surrendered in 191 1/3 innings pitched indicate. That was a home run given up every 5 1/2 innings.
Consistency has also been a problem. Hughes started the season 1-4 with a 7.48 ERA before he rebounded to go 8-2 with a 3.34 from May 6 through July 1. From July 1 on, Hughes was pretty mediocre, going 7-7 with a 4.08 ERA the rest of the way.
Pitch count has also been problem for Hughes. In 14 of his 32 starts Hughes failed to pitch at least six innings. That was mostly due to elevated pitch counts coming from batters repeatedly fouling off pitch after pitch. Hughes basically succumbed in a lot of games due to just the attrition of pitches.
Another pitch in his arsenal would help Hughes with this problem but it appears that it is unlikely Hughes will be able to develop a major-league quality third pitch at this stage of his career.
So the Yankees are committed to Hughes as a starter but they are gong to have to accept his limitations. Absent another weapon what you currently see with Hughes is pretty much what you are going to get.
Though the top three pitchers on the staff (Kuroda, CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte) might be able to adapt to getting a bit less in run support, Hughes might be severely harmed by the loss in power the Yankees suffered when Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones signed with other teams in the offseason.
But with Chamberlain still in the bullpen, along with Robertson and Rivera, the fact that the Yankees top young pitchers such as Michael Pineda, Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances are a long way away from being able to step into the starting rotation, Hughes will be forced to remain a starter this season.
How he fares may come down to his ability to adjust and adapt. At age 26 there is still time for him to improve. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild could be very valuable in putting the final pieces to the Hughes puzzle in place.
However, there is faction of Yankee fans who want Hughes to be traded for some young prospects. That would not seem to make much sense given the plight of Pineda, Banuelos and Betances and the fact that Ivan Nova has his own issues to deal with this spring.
It just seems to be a fact that Hughes is locked in as the team’s No. 4 starter and the Yankees can take comfort in the fact that they could do worse than have a pitcher who has won 34 games in his first two full-time seasons as a starter.
Hughes is pretty much the Rodney Dangerfield of the Yankees’ staff. He gets little respect for what he has done and he has taken far too much of the blame for what he has failed to accomplish.
The 6-foot-5 right-hander from southern California signed a one-year contract worth $7.15 million last week to avoid arbitration so Hughes can now concentrate on the task of getting ready for the 2013 season.
The Yankees are just hoping that the unusual amount of patience they have accorded a young pitcher in their system like Hughes is rewarded with a huge breakout season. But realistically, the Yankees should be happy if Hughes is healthy for a full season and ends 2013 above .500 in winning percentage.
Those are pretty achievable goals.
Perhaps someday Hughes might get a chance to replace Rivera as the team’s closer. But for now he will just have to continue to play the role he has been given – no matter how miscast he seems to be.
NEXT: IVAN NOVA