Yankees Have Hughes Problem

It seems like only yesterday that Phil Hughes, along with fellow right-hander Ian Kennedy were projected as can’t miss prospects by both baseball experts and those within the Yankees organization.  They were so revered that Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman refused to put them into any deal, including a swap that would have brought two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana from the Minnesota Twins to the Bronx in 2008.

Hughes, specifically, was viewed as an immediate starter for the Yankees.  Making the Opening Day roster in 2007 Hughes made his first start on April 26 against the Toronto Blue Jays.  Hughes lasted just 4.1 innings, giving up 4 runs on 7 hits, absorbing the loss.  Making his second start against the Texas Rangers on May 1 Hughes flashed the brilliance seen by others assessing his talent.  He was throwing a no-hitter until, with one out in the sixth inning; Hughes injured his left hamstring while throwing a 0-2 curveball to Ranger first baseman Mark Teixeira.  Hughes would miss the next three months rehabbing his injured leg.

Hughes returned to the Yankees on August 4, making his next start against the Kansas City Royals.  He went 4.2 innings, earning a no-decision.

2007 also marked the first time Hughes pitched in the post season.  Once again, Hughes took advantage of the spotlight.  In Game 1 of the American League Divisional Series Hughes faced the Cleveland Indians, entering the game in relief of starter Roger Clemens.  Hughes sparked as he shut down the Indians in 3.2 innings of work to earn the victory.  It was the only win the Yankees would produce against the Tribe.

Another bit of trivia, Hughes was the youngest player (21) on the roster and he replaced the oldest player (45) in Clemens who left the game with a hamstring injury of his own.

During the winter Hughes was sought after by many teams, with the most notable being the Twins.  The Twins as a small market club needed to unload their premier pitcher, Santana, because they knew he was going to fetch a huge contract that the Twins could ill afford to meet.  The Yankees contacted the Twins about Santana, but they wanted Hughes and center fielder Melky Cabrera in return.  The Yankees ultimately said NO!

Hughes and Cabrera stayed and Santana signed with the New York Mets.

All-in-all, things were looking up for the young righty.  Hughes and Kennedy both made the starting rotation to start the 2008 season.  Hughes, who wore the number 65 in 2007, switched his number to 34 for the 2008 campaign.  It was the number he wore in high school and at the 2006 All-Star Futures Game.

Coming out of Spring Training everything appeared to be on track for Hughes.  He did well in his first start of the season where he went 6.0 innings against the Toronto Blue Jays on April 3.  Hughes earned a no-decision, as the Yankees nipped the Jays 3-2.  In the game Hughes struck out four, walked one and gave up two earned runs.

After that Hughes season unraveled in a hurry.  In his next 5 starts Hughes’ record dropped to 0-4.  He averaged 3.06 innings of work, and his ERA ballooned to 9.00.  To add to Hughes’ woes he landed on the disabled list on April 30 with a strained oblique and a cracked rib.  On May 2 Hughes visited an optometrist and it was discovered he was nearsighted.  He began wearing glasses on the mound.

After recovering from his injuries Hughes spent the summer in the minors at Scranton/Wilkes-Barrie helping the Yankees Triple-A team win the 2008 International League title.

The Yankees recalled Hughes on September 13 and he made his first start on September 17 against the Chicago White Sox.  Hughes threw 4.0 innings, but showed signs of life again.  He surrendered just one run while striking out 4 and walking two batters to help the Yankees to a 5-1 win.  In his next start Hughes pitched 8.0 innings in Toronto.  His line was very encouraging to the Yankees as he only gave up 2 earned runs on 5 hits, while striking out 6 and walking none.  In that one game Hughes lowered his ERA from 7.96 to 6.62.  It was a tremendous building block for Hughes to carry with him into the off-season, which came early as the Yankees failed to make the playoffs.

Hughes had a marvelous 2009 spring training where in 4 appearances (12.1 innings of work) he only gave up 3 earned runs on 5 hits, and had a terrific ERA of 2.19.  However, when camp broke to start the regular season Hughes returned to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

As it has been said many times, “fate is the hunter.”  Fate found Phil Hughes.

No one in their right mind expected the start RHP Chien-Ming Wang has had to start this season.  A two-time 19-game winner, Wang was 8-2 in 2008 before going on the DL after injuring his right foot on June 15, while facing the Houston Astros in an interleague game.  Wang was attempting to score a run when he pulled up lame and was taken out of the game.  It proved to be a season ending injury.

Wang had a pedestrian spring training, but announced himself ready for the start of the season.  Wang was penciled in by manager Joe Girardi as the No. 3 starter behind newly acquired pitchers C.C. Sabathia (Milwaukee Brewers) and A.J. Burnett (Toronto Blue Jays).  In Wang’s first 3 starts he has allowed 23 earned runs on 23 hits in just 6.0 innings of work.  That worked out to an ERA of 34.50.  Wang was pulled from his next start as the team contemplated what it was going to do with him.

“We have some time. We have a day off I think Thursday and we’re going to have to decide what’s best for Chien-Ming Wang and the team,” Girardi said at the time.

What they decided was to put Wang on the disabled list, which opened up the slot for Hughes.

Hughes made the most of the opportunity, and yesterday he was stellar in his start against the Detroit Tigers.   Facing a very formidable lineup Hughes allowed no runs, only 2 hits, while striking out 6 Tigers and walking two.  He also hit a batter.  Hughes mixed his pitches well and kept the Tigers off balance for the most part.  He kept it even, until the Yankees took advantage of an outfield fielding error, and broke the game wide open for an 11-0 win.  The victory snapped a 4-game losing streak.

“It’s a good feeling,” Hughes said to reporters after the game. “I didn’t have one all last year, so to get one in the first start is nice.”

Hughes was just what the Yankees needed.  His performance was the positive, feel good tonic that has been missing from the clubhouse since the Yankees hit the road nearly a week ago.

“That’s the best that I’ve seen him throw,” Joe Girardi said. “It was something we needed. That’s a pretty good hitting lineup and he shut them down.”

Another guy that may be on the hot seat, if Hughes continues to shine, is No. 5 starter Joba Chamberlain.  Chamberlain, who made a splash in 2007 coming out of the bullpen, hasn’t looked as good this season in the starting rotation.

In three starts Chamberlain is 0-0 with a 3.94 ERA.  He has not pitched deep into a game, averaging 5.37 innings per start.  Flashing a near-100 mph fastball in 2007 while coming out of the bullpen Chamberlain has barely reached the mid-90s this year.  He went on the DL in 2008 with a shoulder injury, which was diagnosed as shoulder tendonitis.  He returned to close out the season, but so far this year his performances have been mixed.  Chamberlain has struck out 11, but walked 10.  He is averaging a little over 90 pitches per game.  This is in accordance with the “Joba Rules” imposed upon Chamberlain by the team.  According to Girardi wants Chamberlain limited to 150 innings this year, but at the same time make approximately 30 starts.  Girardi admitted that may necessitate pulling Joba from games after 5 innings.

However, there is no restriction on Hughes, and if he can continue to pitch as he did Tuesday that is going to create some interesting headaches for Girardi.

For one, the bullpen has been a mixed bag of tricks since the season started.  The Yankees have the highest team ERA in baseball and the bullpen has been a large part of that.  Chamberlain has proven he can dish coming out of the ‘pen so that is a great option for Girardi.  RHP Brian Bruney who also went on the DL the same time as Wang had been the one bright spot in the relief corps and once he comes back the Yankees could be looking at a triumvirate much like the Nelson-Stanton-Rivera trio of the 90s.  With both Bruney and Chamberlain in the bullpen with Rivera the Yankees could go a Bruney-Chamberlain-Rivera pairing to shorten the game to six innings.

Secondly, you have to reward effort.  With Wang on the DL for a few more weeks Hughes is going to get the opportunity to show management he belongs in the majors full time.  If he continues to perform like he did against Cleveland sending him back down to the minors would be counterproductive.  It could hurt Hughes psyche as to whether he feels like he’s wanted or not.

The next couple of weeks are going to be very telling for the Yankees and their pitching corps.  If Wang comes back strong and reverts to the pre-injured pitcher he was Girardi is going to have to make some heavy duty decisions (and he won’t be making them alone).  Personally, if Hughes and Wang are pitching at their optimum levels, sending Chamberlain back to the bullpen is the correct move.  He would instantly shore up a leaky group of relievers, and, along with Bruney give them legitimacy.

Decisions, decisions!!  This is why they pay Girardi the big money, because he is the one who is eventually going to have to figure this roadblock out.  It’s a nice problem to have for a while, but ultimately whether or not some personnel like the moves that are going to be made Girardi is going to have to make them for the betterment of the team.

In the meantime, all Phil Hughes can do is take the ball, pitch the best he can, and let the chips fall where they may.

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