Give a bunch of baseball writers an inning, and they’ll make a career out of it.
On Monday night, with the Yanks holding on to a one-run lead in the 7th inning, Joe Girardi summoned Phil Hughes from the bullpen. The Yanks had hoped to throw Phil in a low-pressure situation, but the circumstances of the game and the Yanks’ shaky pen dictated a trial-by-fire appearance for Phil.
The young right-hander did not disappoint. He threw 11 pitches — 7 for strikes — and averaged 94 with his fastball while peaking above 95. He dominated the top of the Rays’ lineup and had everyone raving after the game. Tyler Kepner called him “a revelation in relief,” and Joel Sherman is “intrigued to see more” from Hughes the reliever.
Others were less guarded with their praise and expectations. Steve Lombardi wondered if Hughes’ future rests in the bullpen, and NJ.com’s Colin Stephenson asks if Phil could be the next Joba Chamberlain. I don’t even want to know what Mike Francesca thinks. Is Phil Hughes a STARTING PITCHAAAAAAAAAH?
The Yankees are keeping their short-term plans for Hughes close to the vest. While acknowledging a dearth of AAA starters, Girardi knows that Hughes can be an impact player now. “The important thing is he’s here to pitch important innings for us, and we believe he’s valuable to us,” Girardi said. “I mean, if he’s lights-out in the bullpen, do you make a change? I don’t know. That’s something we’re going to have to continue to evaluate. But we do like having him down there right now.”
Of course, the Yanks like having him down there. Who wouldn’t like having a potential top-of-the-rotation starter throwing in the bullpen? Imagine the damage CC Sabathia or Johan Santana would do out of the pen. (This argument sure sounds familiar, no?)
Meanwhile, we can read between the lines of Girardi’s statements. Chien-Ming Wang carries an ERA of 14.46 into his start against the Red Sox tonight, and if Wang does not pitch well and show improvement over his last outing, the Yankees may have to face the uncomfortable reality that their better option in the rotation is Hughes.
Long-term, the Yankees’ decision to move Hughes into the bullpen has to be a fairly temporary one. Hughes could be starting for the Yankees this year. The reason he isn’t is because the team opted to bring back Andy Pettitte. Next year, though, Hughes should move into the rotation full time, and the Yankees cannot afford to stunt his growth. He might get outs as a reliever, but as we know from the long drawn-out Joba Chamberlain discussion, Hughes’ real value lies in his potential to excel as a starter.
Joe Girardi, of course, has the ultimate word on the subject. “I had said all along that I wasn’t afraid to use him at any time, because of the stuff that he’s got,” Girardi said. “He was really good [Monday]You don’t want to make too much out of one outing, whether it goes one way or the other, but we did like the way he was throwing the baseball.”
You definitely don’t want to make too much out of one outing. For now, Hughes is contributing at the Big League level because he has the talent and ability to do so. He also has the talent and ability to be a successful Major League starter. The Yankees know this, and the team’s fans shouldn’t get seduced, yet again, by a starter throwing a few innings of relief. It didn’t make sense to keep Joba in the pen, and it doesn’t with Hughes either.