Once A.J. Burnett got traded, the picture seemed clear. Instead of having three pitchers competing for the final rotation spot, the Yankees narrowed that down to two. And, considering their performances in 2011, the competition seemed legit. Freddy Garcia, who impressed the Yankees enough that they signed him to a $4 million contract early in the off-season, even seemed to have the upper hand. His performance, reliability, and experience seems, or at least seemed, perfect for the fifth starter role.
Phil Hughes, on the other hand, seems like the riskier pick. He might be younger than Garcia, and relatively young in general, but his MLB experience isn’t overly exciting. After pitching well out of the bullpen for half a season in 2009, he started off 2010 with a bang while pitching from the rotation. But he couldn’t keep up that pace throughout the year. Last year was a disaster, which left many of us wondering if there’s anything behind the Phil Hughes hype.
This isn’t the first time Hughes has been involved in a rotation battle. In 2010 he joined Joba Chamberlain, Sergio Mitre, and Chad Gaudin in competition for the final rotation spot. As we learned that spring, though, there wasn’t much of a competition at all. The Yankees viewed Chamberlain as a reliever, and had no intention of letting Gaudin and Mitre take a rotation spot away from their 24-year-old top prospect who had dazzled in the bullpen the previous season. Hughes was the chosen one, probably before any of them threw a pitch in the spring.
According to Joel Sherman, we can expect much of the same this year.
But understand this: The competition is rigged. If it is close, Hughes wins. If it is advantage Garcia, but only slightly, Hughes wins. Hughes can only lose this by doing what he did last spring, having his fastball go on a mysterious hiatus.
Sherman goes on to describe how well Hughes has thrown during the first few spring outings, signaling that he’s already won the fifth starter job. He also quotes GM Brian Cashman, who said of Hughes: “I think he’s a top-of-the-rotation starter.” Those are pretty heavy words for a guy who hasn’t had a full and productive season in the bigs to date.
In terms of the organization’s future, it makes enough sense to prefer Hughes in the rotation. He’s with the team for at least two more seasons, and will hit free agency before his age-28 season. That is, they could keep him in the organization, even at market price, if he succeeds this year. That’s just not an option for Garcia, who, at age 35, has a limited number of productive years remaining.
It’s the present that’s a bit tougher to judge. Hughes very well could be the superior option this year, which makes the decision to use him in the rotation a no-brainer. But, again, it’s hard to look back on his career and see the signs of someone primed for success. If the Yankees do hand him the ball and he falters out of the gate, they’ll be in an even tougher spot. Do they pull Garcia out of the bullpen and insert him to the rotation? That would likely be the end of Hughes’ days in the rotation.
It comes down to how quickly the Yankees are willing to pull the plug. There’s no harm in seeing what Hughes can give you early in the season. Again, his potential future in the organization is much easier to see than Garcia’s. But at some point there needs to be an emphasis on the 2012 team. If Hughes isn’t working out, the Yankees can’t wait long before turning to Garcia. That’s just the point they’re at with Hughes. It’s either come out of the gates strong, or realize a diminished role in the organization.
It’s no surprise, really, to hear of the rigged competition. There’s a lot at stake, not only for 2012, but in 2013 and beyond. Clearly, Hughes has the potential to play a part in future Yankees teams, while Garcia does not. The key to this situation is how the Yankees approach the 2012 team. They can’t punt the last rotation spot all season. They need to know when it’s time to pull the plug on Hughes in the rotation, even if that means a full-time banishment to the bullpen.