Who Should Be The Fifth Starter?
On the evening of January 13th Yankee GM Brian Cashman emerged from a winter slumber of inactivity with two moves that sent a rumble throughout MLB. The first news to hit was that Cashman had traded Yankee uber-prospect Jesus Montero along with pitcher Hector Noesi to the Seattle Mariners for pitcher Michael Pineda. Just as Yankee fans and media were trying to absorb and analyze that surprising move the second shockwave hit. Cashman had also signed free agent pitcher Hiroki Kuroda to a one year, ten million dollar deal.
It was about ten minutes after those moves were digested that the debate began about who the Yankees’ fifth starter in 2012 would be. It looked like a three-man battle would take place this spring between A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes, and Freddy Garcia.
Last week the Yankees traded Burnett to the Pirates for two low-level prospects and the battle for the fifth rotation spot was down to Hughes and Garcia. So which of these pitchers should be the Yankees fifth starter in 2012? The answer, for a variety of reasons, is Phil Hughes.
By now almost everyone who follows baseball has heard of the Joba Rules. Many Yankee fans cringe when they hear a reference to these rules and with good reason. In an effort to protect the young arms of their prized pitching prospects from injury, GM Brian Cashman and the Yankees formulated a systematic plan limiting the innings that these young pitchers could throw in their initial years. The idea was to prevent injuries to these young pitchers like those that crippled the careers of young sensations Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. The general consensus is that overworking young pitchers can lead to problems later on.
On the surface these rules seemed to be a good innovation by a franchise looking to learn from the mistakes of others. It was the practicality of the application of these rules where things got sticky.
Chamberlain’s trials and tribulations since being removed from the rotation in late 2009 as he approached his innings limit are well-known. While the rules may carry Chamberlain’s name, he’s not the only Yankee who has been adversely affected by them. Phil Hughes was also a victim.
In 2010 Phil Hughes won the last spot in the Yankee rotation. Ironically, the pitcher he beat out for the spot was Joba Chamberlain. Hughes quickly removed any debate about whether or not manager Joe Girardi had made the correct choice out of spring training. Hughes tore through April and May with a 6-1 record. By June 19th Hughes was 10-1 with 3.17 ERA and a sure thing to be named to the All-Star game. He was pitching as well as any starter on the team and the words Cy Young contender were being used in the same sentence as his name more often than not. It was all downhill from there. Hughes was about to become another victim of the Joba Rules.
After his start on June 19th against the crosstown Mets that sent his record to 10-1, it was announced that Hughes would skip his next scheduled outing. His innings were ahead of the 170-180 innings limit that was being imposed on him for the 2010 season. Hughes missed his turn in the rotation and returned on June 29th against the Seattle Mariners. Hughes’ command was off badly and he was battered, allowing 10 hits, 2 walks, and 6 earned runs over 5 2/3 innings in his first loss since May 22nd. With Hughes obviously unhappy about the time between starts affecting his performance, this is what his manager Girardi said after that game:
“If I was in his shoes, it would be hard for me too,” Girardi said. “But as I said, we’re concerned about Phil Hughes today, tomorrow, two years from now, five years from now. A lot of times, players live in the moment; I understand that because I did it myself. But we have a responsibility to the organization and the players to keep them healthy. Sometimes we have to make tough decisions players don’t like, but it’s our job to make those tough decisions.”
Hughes pitched well in spots after the All-Star break that year, but never settled back into the form he had displayed prior to the skipped start. Because of the way the skipped start affected Hughes in June, the Yankees tweaked the Joba Rules. To allow him to pitch his scheduled turns in the rotation without skipping a start the Yankees limited the innings in his starts, with 6 innings being the maximum number of innings he was allowed to throw. He pitched the rest of the 2010 season in this fashion, also making one relief appearance in September against the Rangers.
Hughes finished the year having pitched 176 1/3 innings, just as the Yankees had planned. He went 18-8 with a 4.19 ERA. Not a bad record for a pitcher in his first full season as a starter but anyone watching could see he wasn’t the same guy after the Joba Rules disrupted his season. His two ALCS starts against the Rangers were abysmal and capped off Hughes’ 2010 season. Still, Hughes very promising season was viewed as a bright spot for the Yankees. It appeared the Yankees had a young starter who would be a reliable part of their rotation for years to come.
Expectations were high for Phil Hughes for the 2011 season. Those expectations were immediately tempered when Hughes came to camp packing additional pounds. He wasn’t large enough to be put in the Shrek category, but was large enough to end up in what the Yankees refer to as fat camp. Fat camp is for players who need to gain fitness in order to be ready for the season.
Hughes started the 2011 season with three ghastly efforts. With no life on his fastball at all, Hughes was pulled from the rotation with a 13.94 ERA that made him the butt of many jokes. After being examined for every malady known to man it was finally determined that he simply had inflammation of the shoulder. Cortisone shots seemed to help the condition and Hughes was sent back to the Yankees training complex to start from scratch.
Returning to the Yankee rotation right before the All Star break, Hughes made four starts in July. Three of them were not very encouraging. With the Yankees using a six man rotation that C.C. Sabathia was obviously not happy with, speculation began that after Hughes made his first August start that he would be sent to the bullpen to reduce the starting rotation to five. Hughes, however, made that hard to do.
Hughes strung together three strong starts in a row in August, allowing only a total of only three earned runs in those outings and getting the win in all three games. More importantly, his fastball once again had life. Hughes appeared to be in the mix for a playoff rotation slot. Two sub par outings were next for Hughes, followed by two more strong outings. Speculation about a slot in the postseason rotation came to an end when back spasms caused Hughes to be scratched from a scheduled start in a makeup game against the Twins. Shortly after that, Girardi sent Hughes to the bullpen where he finished the season.
Freddy Garcia was a bargain bin signing by Cashman before the 2011 season. A soon to be thirty-five year old veteran, his fastball was long gone. The signings of Garcia and fellow veteran pitcher Bartolo Colon by the Yankees before the 2011 season were the source of endless mocking of the Yankees’ pitching situation. Having been left at the altar by free agent Cliff Lee, Cashman did what he had to do to put a staff together for 2011. By June, the jokes and mocking had turned to disbelief and praise. Colon seemed to have turned back the clock with a shockingly good fastball. Garcia had stopped trying to get a fastball by hitters and accepted his station in life. Garcia mixed up speeds, locations, and pitches effectively enough to finish the year at 12-8 with a 3.62 ERA.
When Girardi rewarded Garcia by naming him the third starter in the 2011 ALDS, there was some concern. It’s one thing to use mix up speeds and locations in the regular season, it’s another to send a pitcher to the mound in a postseason game against the slugging Tigers with a fastball that was topping out in the mid 80′s on the radar gun. Garcia allowed a two run home run to Miguel Cabrera in the first inning that put the Yankees in a two run hole. Flirting with trouble, the end finally came when he was punished in the 6th inning. The Yankees could not overcome the four run deficit and lost that crucial game.
Freddy Garcia will always be remembered as one of those pleasant surprises in a Yankee season. To give the Yankees the solid outings that he did last year and keep them in ball games was another reminder of how good Brian Cashman can be with his low-end trades and signings. The question is does anyone really believe that Garcia can be as effective this season as he was last season? Garcia will be another year older and his fastball will be one year slower. As evidenced in the 2011 ALDS, it’s a lot harder to get through the lineup of a good team without an effective fastball. It just doesn’t seem likely that Garcia can reproduce last year’s form. It’s even less likely that he would be better in 2012. Hughes’ potential upside simply outweighs Garcia’s by a wide margin.
Phil Hughes came to camp this year in such good shape that on site observers have referred to him as buffed. That is a great sign that Hughes understood that he let down himself and the team by failing to condition properly for the 2011 season. Did the Joba Rules play a big role in slowing his development after June of 2010? Probably, but the condition in which he arrived at camp last year certainly played a huge role. Hughes brought the physical results and criticisms of his work ethic upon himself by doing that. By taking the offseason seriously and arriving at camp in the best physical shape of his Yankee career, Hughes has displayed an acute awareness of his shortcomings and taken responsibility for his own actions. Now if only the Yankees will do the same.
You don’t have to be a doctor or general manager to see that the Joba Rules have been a disaster so far. Whether or not they were made and enforced with the best of intentions, as Joe Girardi spoke of in the quote earlier in this article, is not the point. The point is that the results so far have been to do nothing more than stop two very talented young pitchers cold in their tracks.
The Yankees must buy into Hughes as the fifth starter in 2012 for more reasons than his upside being greater than Garcia’s and his age. With David Phelps, Adam Warren, Manny Banuelos, and Dellin Betances all lurking with great promise in the minors, the Yankees must display that they can apply the Joba Rules to a promising young pitcher and not ruin his career as a starter. Already there are concerns among Yankee fans about how these future Yankee pitchers will be handled. As much hype as those prospects have received, as much promise as they have, Yankee fans have been down this road in the recent past when Joba, Hughes, and Ian Kennedy were supposed to be the anchors of the Yankee rotation of the future. Joba is recovering from Tommy John surgery after one and a half disappointing seasons in the bullpen, Hughes is fighting with a 35-year-old Garcia for the fifth spot in the rotation, and Kennedy was given up on early and traded as part of the Granderson deal. Even more alarming is the progress that Kennedy made once out of the Yankee system. Kennedy was 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA last year while leading the Diamondbacks to a post season appearance.
Hughes has the talent to once again become the pitcher that he looked like in 2010. It appears that he also possesses the fitness level. It’s time to let Hughes pitch without the hindrance of rules or every start being a referendum on whether or not he stays in the rotation. You can’t micromanage and control every aspect of a young pitcher’s career. At some point you just have to hand them the ball every five days and say “go get them kid”.