By Jason Keidel
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By the time Phil Hughes finally pitched for the Yankees in 2007, the brass had built him into Sidd Finch, a fireballing wunderkind who would hurl the Bombers into a new dynasty.
It was a frosty night in mountains of Western Pennsylvania, a few fly balls from the Ohio border, where springtime is often tardy, when I ran shivering to my truck, blasted the heat, and twisted the dial to 880 AM. There were odd pockets far west of the Hudson where you could hear John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman shill for all things pinstriped.
And while their semantic theatrics can make them intolerable, the game on May 1, 2007 was worthy of the hyperbole.
Phil Hughes was tossing a no-hitter in his second major-league start, against the Texas Rangers – a team with much fortified lumber – in their park. It was a nice story after three innings, compelling after four, gripping after five, and electric after six. Then Hughes came up lame in the seventh after a pitch, ironically, to Mark Teixeira.
Hughes was pulled from the game, and has been equally bewildering since.
The Mets got Johan Santana for a bag of Doritos. And you wonder if Hughes is now nacho cheese or cool ranch. The Twins wanted Hughes in any deal for Santana, and the Yankees balked. And while it's unfair to assume Santana would have been stellar for the Yankees, he had Cy Young on speed dial and a battalion of GMs trying to pry the ace from Minnesota.
Compared to the hype swirling around Hughes since the Yanks drafted him in 2004, he has been a bust. Even the most ardent Yankees apologist admits that eight years into his career, you expected better than this. Anyone can find a starter to go 4-5 with a 5.64 ERA – Hughes's underwhelming numbers this year.
Not sure about you, but it's quite troubling to see 15 pitchers listed on Yankees.com and find Hughes at No. 14 in ERA. Four Yankees have started ten games, and Hughes has the highest ERA, pitched the fewest innings (52.2), the second-worst WHIP (1.44) and second-fewest strikeouts (49). Opponents are hitting an appalling .286 against Hughes, and he has surrendered 12 home runs, second only to Hiroki Kuroda (13).
"Look at 2010!" you shriek.
All right, let's look at the lone All-Star season from Hughes. He started 5-0 with a 1.38 ERA over 39 innings, and then went 5-2 with a 5.56 ERA over the next 55 innings. He then went 8-6 the rest of the season, finishing with a 4.19 ERA. And after going 18-8 Yankees fans thought we had the next Ron Guidry on our hands.
How's that going?
Unless the Yankees do the one thing that can salvage the healthy half of the tainted tandem that was supposed to take the Bronx by storm for the next decade, Hughes will be penned into the growing appendix of Brian Cashman's pitching blunders. (We see where Joba Chamberlain is now: a crippled lab rat after Cashman and Joe Girardi prodded, coddled, and pitch-counted him to death.)
Put Hughes back in the bullpen. There's a compelling column from May 4, on YES.com, supporting the move. Since the injury to Mariano Rivera and the addition of Andy Pettitte, the Yanks have more heft in the rotation and need relief with relief. According to the article, Hughes finished the first half of 2010 with an 11-2 record and 3.65 ERA in 16 starts. Since then, Hughes was just 12-15 with a 5.72 ERA in 32 starts.
But the year before (2009), when Hughes was bumped to the bullpen, his stats were stellar – 51.1 IP, 65 SO, 1.40 ERA. Indeed, he was the unheralded hero that year as Rivera's setup man, invaluable during the team's run to the World Series championship.
At some point, potential stops paying the rent. And while Hughes isn't expensive by Bronx standards ($3.25 million), he's nearly useless in the rotation. With Rafael Soriano as the new closer and Dave Robertson's recent injury woes, the Yankees are forced to play a shell game with the endgame. Enter Hughes, who looks, feels, and fits like a glove in seventh or eighth inning.
What do the Yankees have to lose with Hughes in the bullpen? The young man is already lost. The AL East is a beast this year (with five teams over .500), and thus the Yankees can't afford to fiddle with Phil Hughes much longer. Give him one more chance to find a home, in the one place where he prospered.
We don't like to admit that we're wrong, particularly when pitching is involved. But winning should trump pride, even Yankee Pride.
Should Hughes be sent packing to the 'pen? Be heard in the comments below...
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