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
With the disappointing loss to the Detroit Tigers in the American League Divisional Series a distant bad memory, the New York Yankees will look to reconstruct a championship caliber team for the 2012 season. To that end let’s look at what possible moves the Yankees might make to improve their roster. It might seem like a daunting task. But it sure could be worse. Think how tough a time the Boston Red Sox will have rebuilding without general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona.
PART 2 – Relief Pitching
PRIORITY NO. 1 – Finding a second left-hander or two
NOTE: As I predicted, the New York Yankees were able to keep CC Sabathia off the free-agent market by signing him an one-year contract extension that will pay him $122 million over the next five seasons and the Yankees will control an option to bring him back in 2017. This means the Yankees can turn their sights to Priority No. 2 (Fixing A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes) and Priority No. 3 (signing or trading for another starting pitcher). Sabathia’s signing is double bad news for the Texas Rangers. They were looking to add Sabathia to their rotation and now they face the prospect of losing C.J. Wilson to the Yankees. That would be enough to send Rangers manager Ron Washington back on drugs.
The Yankees, simply stated, had the best bullpen in the major leagues in 2011.
The proof is in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series with the Tigers. The only run given up after Ivan Nova left the game with an injury after the first inning was off of Sabathia. The bullpen itself kept the Tigers within striking distance for a comeback that never came.
Looking at 2012, the Yankees can again point to their bullpen as being the strongest part of this team.
At age 41, Mariano Rivera showed no real signs of aging by saving 44 of 49 games and becoming the major-league leader in all-time saves with 603. For the fourth straight season and the eighth season out of the last nine, Rivera recorded an ERA under 2.00. Rivera is under contract for another season and that is just fine with the Yankees because having the greatest reliever in major-league history in your bullpen is a huge plus.
The Yankees also have managed to shorten games by the use of their setup men.
Nobody did that better than David Robertson last season. With injuries shelving both Rafael Soriano and Joba Chamberlain, Robertson, 26, stepped up his game to go 4-0 with a 1.90 ERA and strike out 100 batters in 66 2/3 innings. He also tied Daniel Bard of the Red Sox for the American League in holds with 34 and he earned a selection to pitch in the 2011 All-Star Game.
Robertson’s best work, though, came in pressure situations – either ones he inherited or those messes he created for himself. Robertson was able to wriggle out of bases-loaded situations with amazing regularity.
The Yankees also will have 32-year-old right-hander Rafael Soriano back for the 2012 season. Soriano has elected not to opt out of his three-year contract and remain with the Yankees for $11 million this coming season and $14 million for 2013.
Soriano, who led the major leagues with 45 saves in 2010, was 2-3 with a 4.12 ERA and two saves in a season plagued by elbow soreness. Soriano pitched exceptionally well after he returned from the disabled list in July. He was 1-2 with a 3.33 ERA and he ended up with 23 holds.
The only question is will Soriano regain his eighth inning role from Robertson in 2012? Either way the Yankees know that most teams will have to obtain the lead by the sixth inning or face the prospect of losing the game because Robertson, Soriano and Rivera are pretty tough to beat when they are all healthy and pitching well.
The Yankees also possibly may have Joba Chamberlain back healthy again.
Chamberlain, 26, missed most of the 2011 season to undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. He was effective in the 27 games he pitched. He was 2-0 with a 2.83 ERA and he recorded 12 holds.
Reports indicate Chamberlain is ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation and he hopes to be ready to go once spring training begins in February. But with Robertson and Soriano filling the setup roles in the bullpen, the Yankees can afford to be cautious with Chamberlain. They will gladly start the season with Chamberlain on the disabled list and bring him along slowly to make sure he is 100 percent.
The rest of the Yankees’ bullpen in 2011 was pretty good. The Yankees got good work out of right-handers Cory Wade and Luis Ayala.
Wade, 28, was 6-1 with a 2.04 ERA after being acquired off waivers from the Tampa Bay Rays in June. Ayala, 33, made the team out of spring training after being signed as free agent and was 2-2 with a 2.09 ERA.
Wade is likely to be retained for 2012 as insurance policy on Chamberlain but Ayala likely will not return.
That leaves the only left-hander the Yankees had in 2011, Boone Logan. Next to A.J. Burnett, the 27-year-old Logan is the pitcher Yankee fans love to the hate the most.
At times, Logan can be brilliant. Other times, Logan can be awful. Overall, Logan was 5-3 with a 3.46 ERA for the Yankees. However, he is terribly miscast as “lefty specialist.” It is sort of like asking Owen Wilson to play the part of Tony Soprano in the “The Sopranos.” It just doesn’t work.
Left-handed hitters hit .260 off of Logan while right-handers hit .262 off him.
That points up the Yankees’ biggest need in 2012: Looking for a reliable and effective lefty specialist.
The Yankees ignored my pleas to go all out to sign free-agent lefty Scott Downs last off-season. Downs ended up signing a multi-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels and he was 6-3 with a 1.34 ERA with 26 holds for the Angels. Instead, the Yankees overpaid Soriano to accept a setup role.
The Yankees did sign left-hander Pedro Feliciano from the New York Mets. But the 35-year-old free agent developed a shoulder soreness in spring training and ended up undergoing rotator cuff surgery without ever throwing a pitch for the Yankees in 2011. He likely won’t pitch in 2012 and his two-year contract with Yankees will end with him very much a question mark as a free agent in 2013.
The Mets abused Feliciano by pitching him in a major-league high of 344 appearances over the four previous seasons, including 92 in 2010. Feliciano paid the price for it and he likely will never be the same pitcher he was.
The Yankees also hoped to have veteran left-hander Damaso Marte back in 2011. But the 36-year-old hero of the 2009 postseason championship run for the Yankees has not be able to recover from left shoulder surgery he underwent in 2010. The Yankees have since declined an option on him and released him.
So the Yankees are in the market for a lefty specialist in 2012 who can either augment or replace Logan.
There are no other left-handers listed on the Yankees’ 40-man roster. There no lefties who would be of much help in the bullpen in the minor leagues. So general manager Brian Cashman must look to acquire several candidates to audition in spring training.
One pitcher the Yankees would love to have is Rafael Perez of the Indians. Perez, 29, was 5-2 with a 3.00 ERA and 12 holds with the Indians in 2011. Perez was replaced as the primary lefty in the bullpen by 28-year-old Tony Sipp.
But Perez can still get out left-handed batters. They batted only .237 against him last season.
The Yankees also might be interested in Eric O’Flaherty, 26, of the Braves and Sean Marshall, 29, of the Cubs. Both of them had excellent 2011 seasons. But they would cost dearly in a trade.
Guillermo Mota, 38, could be a big free-agent target. He was 2-2 with a 3.81 ERA in 52 appearances with the Giants. More impressive was his 77 strikeouts in 80 1/3 innings. Lefties hit just .234 off him in 2011. His age might be a concern but, given the strength of the Yankees’ bullpen, he might be worth an offer.
Look for the Yankees to bring in at least two left-handed relievers to compete for a spot in the bullpen in spring training.
Of course, the Yankees’ right-handers do have an ability to get out lefties.
Left-handers hit only .240 off Rivera, .156 off Robertson, .250 off Chamberlain, .246 off Wade and .250 off Ayala. They only feasted on Soriano, who was hit for a .302 by left-handers last season. The effectiveness of the right-handers against left-handers is one reason why the bullpen was such a strength in 2011.
Given the depth here, it looks like the bullpen – barring injury – looks to be just as strong in 2012.
NEXT: PART 3 – STARTING LINEUP
PRIORITY NO. 1 – Who will the Yankees keep at catcher?