Once upon a time, we considered Phil Hughes untouchable. Taken by the Yanks with the 23rd pick of the 2004 amateur draft — a thank you gift from the Astros for signing Andy Pettitte — the right-hander with a mid-90s fastball and a killer curve was the considered to be the nation’s top high school pitcher. He also symbolized a new era in Yankee drafts. No more John-Ford Griffins or Dave Parrishes for the refocused Front Office.
Over the years, Yankee fans fanatically watched Hughes mature. They wanted to believe that he was the harbinger of an organization that would one day produce good young players in the mold of Pettitte, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera. With hired mercenaries striking out in October throughout the mid-2000s, Hughes was practically considered a savior.
Brian Cashman fed the hype as he frequently declared Hughes off limits. The Nationals at one pointed wanted Hughes for Alfonso Soriano, and the Mariners in 2005 mentioned his name in a deal involving Randy Winn. “I’ve got players people ask us about other than Phil Hughes,” the Yanks’ GM said to Tyler Kepner in 2006. “People ask about him, too. I really have no interest. There are some guys you can have longer conversations about than others.”
We, of course, staked out a strong position with regards to Hughes in late 2007 when the Twins were dangling Johan Santana. Save the Big Three, we said. They’ll bring more glory than Johan Santana.
These days, though, Hughes’ star has dimmed considerably. Despite some solid results against the Mariners earlier this week, 2011 has been a lost year for Hughes. He’s made just 14 starts and sports a 6.00 ERA. His K/9 is two strike outs below his career norm, his fastball has less zip, his breaking pitches no bite. He has improved upon his dismal start, but his pitcher is a far cry from the Number 2 starter we hoped he would be by this point in his career.
Across the land, Yankee-watchers are wondering about Mr. Hughes. At 25, he should be getting better, but as Steve Goldman noted earlier this week, he’s doing the opposite. “Hughes had a 1.38 ERA through his first half-dozen starts in 2010,” Goldman wrote, “but after that his ERA was just a fraction under 5.00 and he gave up 1.6 home runs per nine innings. His line from then until now: 40 games, 209.1 innings, 223 hits, 33 home runs, 68 walks, 152 strikeouts, 5.33 ERA.” That is a lot of innings with some not-very-impressive results.
And so I wonder if Phil Hughes should be as untouchable as he once was. Recently, Jon Heyman offered up a tidbit on Hughes: “Phil Hughes is expected to move to the bullpen, and it’s possible the Yankees could consider trading him in the offseason (some see him as the next Ian Kennedy, someone who might benefit from a move out of New York).”
Of course, the Kennedy comps would come, and if Hughes is on the block, looking to the Yanks’ situation with Kennedy makes sense. For Kennedy plus others, the Yanks were able to net themselves Curtis Granderson. While Kennedy has excelled in Arizona, that’s not a bad haul at all, and it’s a trade I would be willing to make over and over again. The two situations, though, aren’t exactly alike.
When the Yanks traded Kennedy, he was nearing his 25th birthday, but the two players’ ages are about all they had in common. Kennedy had excelled in the minors but due to injury and ineffectiveness, had thrown just 59.2 innings at the Big League level. He had missed most of 2009 with an aneurysm, and the Yanks had seemingly soured on him before that due to an attitude that many said was simply too brash. Kennedy was still a prospect and not yet a project.
Hughes, on the other hand, has now amassed 441 innings in the Bronx. He’s made 71 starts, and we’ve watched his velocity decline and stuff diminish since he was moved from the setup role in 2009 to a starting role last year. And, oh yeah, he’s arbitration eligible after making $2.7 million this year. Kennedy still has another year left before he’s due for arbitration, and the Diamondbacks are paying him just $423,000.
Other teams’ fans haven’t written off Phil Hughes. The folks at Bleed Cubbie Blue said they would be happy to have him, and I’d imagine others would too. After all, a 25-year-old with Hughes’ potential is alluring. Whether he can realize that potential is something I’ve begun to doubt a bit this year.
To trade Hughes, though, the Yanks would have to fill some holes. Perhaps they could use an everyday player for the aging left side of the infielder. Perhaps they could use a young starter with potential who also needs a change of scenery. Without drawing up a complicated multi-team deal, there simply aren’t too many landing spots for Hughes or desirable pieces for the Yankees.
Maybe the Yanks and Hughes are simply stuck with each other for now. Despite his poor showing this year, he’ll get a raise for 2012, and suddenly, the Yanks are paying Phil Hughes $3-$4 million. For that, they’ll need more than an inconsistent starter with potential or a mid-inning reliever. Now if only the real Phil Hughes, whoever that may be, would please stand up.