When Phil Hughes takes the mound tonight to face off against the Orioles, he is probably making his last start as a fill-in for Chien-Ming Wang. The Yanks’ sinker ball specialist is due back this weekend, and Hughes’ days in the Bronx as a starter are seemingly numbered right now.
Of course, he will be back. Still just 22, Hughes is among the top 20 youngest Major Leaguers this year, and he has pitched serviceably in three of his four starts. Outside of his disastrous start against tonight’s opponent in Baltimore, Hughes has thrown 15 innings to the tune of a 3.60 ERA and has ten strikeouts in those three starts. The ten walks are clearly a concern, but Hughes, at age 22, can hold his own right now in the Majors.
Yet, for all of his success, some baseball commentators doubt Hughes’ long-term outlook. Michael Salfino of SNY wonders if Hughes’ stock is declining. He also speculates that it may have been overinflated before his Big League arrival. In that article, Salfino and Keith Law note that the Yanks do not want to allow Hughes to learn on the job in the Big Leagues and may be better off sending him to AAA to build up his trade value.
Meanwhile, at ESPN, Rob Neyer rips on the piece to suggest that the Yankees could put Hughes in the bullpen. We debated this question three weeks ago, and my basic position still stands: The Yankees should not be putting 22-year-old pitchers who can get outs at the Big League level into the bullpen. It just doesn’t make sense.
Yet, Neyer touches upon an aspect to this proposal that, on the surface, warrants further discussion:
Yes, why not? Hughes has the low-90s fastball and the big curve and not much else, and the low-90s fastball might become a mid-90s fastball if he’s out there for just an inning or two at a time. The Yankee bullpen currently sports a 5.46 ERA, third-worst in the league. Doesn’t a slight change in course seem to be in order? After all, Brian Bruney can do only so much.
I suppose the argument is that Hughes still has a shot to be a good starter, but needs more Triple-A innings if that’s going to happen. I don’t know, though. Johan Santana got 49 Triple-A along with his bullpen apprenticeship in the majors, and he seems to have done pretty well for himself. There are different ways to succeed, and it’ll be a shame if the Yankees fall short this season because they got locked into just the one way.
Johan Santana had those bullpen appearances at the Major League level first because he was a Rule V pick-up. The Twins would rather have used him as a starter in AAA but could not due to baseball regulations. Then, the Twins refused to transition Santana into the rotation much to the chagrin of their fans. In the end, he became a stud out of the rotation. The situations are hardly analogous.
As Neyer suggests, the Yanks may be locked into a development path, and it may be stopping them from considering Hughes in the bullpen. But at the same time, sticking Hughes in the pen would be a move designed to sacrifice the future for the present.
The Yanks pen has been shaky this year, but they just got back one right-handed set-up man. They have true relief options at AAA that should be deployed for more than just three innings before they put their top starting pitching prospect into a relief role. That’s where his long-term value lies, and while Salfino and other New York-based analysts may take this “what have you done for me lately?” approach, baseball just doesn’t work that way.