The End Of Phil Hughes As We Know Him

Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes watches as Los Angeles Angels catcher Chris Iannetta rounds the bases after hitting a two-run homer at Yankee Stadium. Credit: Tim Farrell/The Star-Ledger via US PRESSWIRE

And we'll all feel fine. What the Yankees will (probably) do when Andy Pettitte and Michael Pineda are ready.

CC Sabathia has a 5.59 ERA after three starts. No big deal. His strikeout rate is still excellent, and it's not as if he's lost command of the strike zone.

Hiroki Kuroda has a 5.00 ERA after three starts. No big deal. He had a magnificent start bookended by two miserable starts. Even though he gave up six earned runs to the Twins, who have scored five runs all year, it's still early, and that second start showed what he was capable of.

Ivan Nova has a 4.15 ERA after two starts -- staff ace! -- but if those starts are any indication, there's a chance that he's developed some sort of strikeout pitch. His sinker was nasty enough to succeed; a strikeout pitch is like a poisonous jellyfish with a switchblade. Not entirely necessary, but extra-scary.

That leaves the bottom two of the Yankees' rotation: Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia. Both are struggling, just like the rest of the rotation. But it's a little harder to brush off their struggles. Hughes had such an up-and-down, miserable season last year that doubting him is comfortable, like a pair of old slippers. Old slippers that smell like the circus and burning hair. You don't want to. But so comfortable!

Freddy Garcia hasn't been good, but he's always been on borrowed time. He was a minor-league-contract-turned-good last year, pitching better than he had since 2005. He's nice insurance against rumors that you're going to trade for Bruce Chen to start the last game of the season, but he almost certainly isn't one of the Yankees' five-best starters.

The cataloging comes up now because the Yankees will have decisions to make soon. Andy Pettitte is pitching well in the minors, looking at May as the target date for his farvening. Michael Pineda, the talk of Yankees camp because of his diminished fastball, is about to start a rehab assignment. If his velocity is anywhere close to where it was, the Yankees will gladly put him in the rotation.

Of course Garcia is going to go. But what of Hughes? He told the Daily News that he knows his rotation spot is in trouble:

"That's part of being a Yankee," Hughes said. "If you're not getting the job done, they'll bring in somebody else that does. It pushes you to be that much better and I enjoy that."

I'm sure "enjoy" is code for "GOOD GOD DOESN'T ANYONE IN THIS TOWN HAVE ANYTHING ELSE TO WORRY ABOUT?", but that's just a semantic difference. Hughes has pitched eight innings over two games, giving up eight runs. Using my TI-89 graphing calculator, I've figured out that adds up to an ERA of 9.00. That's not a desirable earned-run average.

The indicators aren't that scary -- he's getting swinging strikes, and he's getting strikeouts. His command might be part of the problem, as well as his pitch selection:

"When I get in some jams, I almost want to be a little too fine, maybe not go to my fastball as much," Hughes said. "That needs to be something I improve on. The changeup and cutter obviously have their spots, but when I rely on one thing or another too much, it can sometimes get me into trouble."

He'll get a chance to figure it out. But if Pineda looks great in rehab, the damage might have already been done. Hughes could be back in the bullpen no matter what he does, save a complete-game shutout or something similar. And this is all just a guess, but I could see the following happening:

  1. Hughes pitches well in relief, as he did in 2009
  2. Sabathia, Nova, and Pineda pitch well enough to be locks for the 2013 rotation
  3. One of Dellin Betances or Manny Banuelos pushes their way into a rotation spot (though both are struggling mightily now)
  4. The Yankees retain one of the old free-agents-to-be (Pettitte, Kuroda) or gets a similar pitcher on the free-agent market

And that's how Phil Hughes, late-inning reliever, will be born. After the inconsistency of Hughes in the rotation, and the relative consistency of him in the bullpen, the Yankees will throw up their hands and leave him where he is. He'll give the Yankees value, just not as much as they might have hoped when he was one of the best pitching prospects in baseball.

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Yeah, pretty much. A lot would have to fall into place. But call it a hunch. Phil Hughes might not be long for the rotation. And it's Andy Pettitte's fault. It's weird when it's put like that.

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