Phil Hughes to the bullpen, for the right reasonsBy
Earlier this week, Joe spent some time discussing the possibility of sending A.J. Burnett to the bullpen, and how it may be a good idea so long as it’s done for the appropriate reasons. The basic gist of the article was that if Burnett was to be transitioned the bullpen, it shouldn’t simply be resultant of a reactive angst-induced fit from his recent performance implosions, but rather because it may actually be more conducive to A.J.’s stamina and abilities going forward.
It became fairly obvious after watching yesterday’s match against the Rays, that the same discussion will have to be had regarding Phil Hughes. As a result of of Phil’s past few starts (in addition to Nova’s rather surprising overall production), the Yankees have found themselves in a rather envious plight, that is to say they have too many starting pitching options. Hughe’s role with the team for the remainder of the season will have to be defined, and I suspect this decision will occur in the next couple days (if it hasn’t already).
However, just as there are correct and incorrect reasons for transitioning A.J., so are there correct and incorrect reasons for shuffling Phil. I have heard plenty of comments along the lines of, “Phil should be in the starting rotation because he’s not a sporadic pitcher with issues stemming from a lack of mental fortitude’ named A.J.” Similarly, there’s the topic of Burnett’s contract, as Joe astutely notes.
With more than two years left on his deal, Burnett is not going anywhere. The Yankees are not DFAing him, nor are they trading him. That leaves them with limited options. They’ve taken the path of least resistance, which is to continue trotting him out there and hoping for the best. But as has become apparent in the past two seasons, his best might not be enough. He’s been good at times, but he hasn’t sustained his success for any long stretch.
Putting superficial diagnoses of A.J.’s makeup aside, in an ideal world, Hughes would not have his role determined merely by the fact that A.J. is an expensive (albeit ineffective) member of the rotation. Although Burnett is paid as “a number two guy,” this does not mean does not mean he should be treated as such if performance dictates otherwise (which is the case, I believe, given A.J.’s role on the playoff roster). Conversely Hughes should not, by default, have his responsibilities influenced by A.J.’s production; rather, whatever path is chosen or Phil should be merited by his own results and ability.
Now, for all intents and purposes, Hughes has shown relatively steady improvement since coming back from the disabled list (although that Oakland start is a bit of an eyesore). Consider Phil’s game log since returning. Note: the table excludes yesterday’s results.
|1||104||3||Apr 3||NYY||DET||L,7-10||GS-4||L(0-1)||4.0||5||5||5||2||1||2||0||11.25||19||90||58||15||2||3||13||1||4t 3 out d1|
|2||105||7||Apr 8||NYY||@||BOS||L,6-9||GS-2||2.0||7||6||6||2||0||1||0||16.50||14||47||29||8||1||5||7||3||2b 3 out d3|
|3||106||11||Apr 14||NYY||BAL||W,6-5||GS-5||4.1||7||5||5||0||2||1||0||13.94||20||70||51||14||4||4||14||4||5t -2- 1 out d4|
|4||107||85||Jul 6||NYY||@||CLE||L,3-5||GS-5||L(0-2)||5.0||6||2||2||2||2||0||2||10.57||25||87||57||14||2||7||12||6||5b 3 out d2|
|5||108||92||Jul 17||NYY||@||TOR||W,7-2||GS-6||W(1-2)||6.0||4||2||2||2||5||0||0||8.44||24||80||51||13||8||3||14||3||6b 3 out a3|
|6||109||97||Jul 22||NYY||OAK||W,17-7||GS-5||4.1||9||7||7||4||3||1||1||9.47||27||98||66||29||4||9||10||5||5t 123 1 out a9|
|7||110||102||Jul 27||NYY||SEA||L,2-9||GS-6||L(1-3)||6.0||9||2||2||1||3||0||0||8.24||26||101||65||11||9||7||15||5||6t 3 out d1|
|8||111||108||Aug 2||NYY||@||CHW||W,6-0||SHO(6)||W(2-3)||6.0||3||0||0||0||4||0||0||6.93||20||65||48||16||5||9||7||0||6b 3 out a4|
|9||112||113||Aug 7||NYY||@||BOS||L,2-3||10-GF(10)||L(2-4)||0.1||2||1||1||1||0||0||0||7.11||4||13||6||3||0||0||3||1||10b end d 1|
Phil had a decent start against Toronto (who probably posed the biggest challenge offensively in terms of opponents faced). The outcome against Seattle (two ER) was good although he did surrender nine hits in the process. As for Chicago and Tampa Bay, the overall performance was much more satisfactory in all regards. Hughes’ strikeout and walk ratios were heading in the right direction, his pitch selection was sufficiently mixed, and he was showing better efficiency with his “out pitch.” Of course, one could certainly make the argument that neither of these clubs are particularly potent.
Yet, is a handful of games enough to warrant a starting rotation spot? If Yankee Brass feels that Hughes has fully recovered and can sustain these performances going forward, than the answer is unequivocally yes. A productive starting pitcher is just more valuable to the team. There’s also the argument to be made that this gives the team the best chance of winning every fifth day.
Realistically speaking however, there’s a very real chance that Hughes will head back to the bullpen for the remainder of the season. We can pretty much predict the reason for such a shift; well, at least we can predict the reason that will be publicly provided. Either Cashman or Girardi will say something along the lines that Phil’s stuff will be more effective in the bullpen for the remainder of the season (as proven by his prior experience there). If we’re “lucky,” we may even hear that an expected uptick in velocity will occur.
This is not the correct reason for this outcome though (at least in my eyes). I won’t mind Hughes being sent to relief if the team’s rationale is that the postseason is rapidly approaching and the starting rotation for the playoffs doesn’t include Hughes anyway. Because of the “win now” nature of the organization, I can somewhat rationalize beefing up the bullpen and prolonging Hughes development if it means another potential World Series championship. Also, given Hughes’ shoulder fatigue, it may make sense to limit him down the stretch for the sake of preserving his arm for next year and beyond.