Is the 5th starter competition rigged again?

A Sign of the Catcher Contract Apocalypse
Joba throws off full mound for first time since Tommy John surgery

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.

A Sign of the Catcher Contract Apocalypse
Joba throws off full mound for first time since Tommy John surgery
  • Bryan V

    Good. Hughes should get every opportunity to show the team what he can do as a starter. It’s too bad the Yankees may spend another $4m on a reliever, but at least this one will throw more than the recent others.

    • CJ

      How do they plan to keep freddy sharp as a 6th man/long reliever? Freddy is old with history of arm injuries, he needs a ling time to warm up and can’t pitch with 1-2 days rest.

      • Havok9120

        Yes, you’ve said this many, many times throughout the offseason. Repetition, however, does not make a statement true. While not unreasonable, we have no reason to assume that that statement is accurate.

        And the fact that you…um…strongly dislike Garcia’s presence on the team doesn’t exactly lend you any additional credence from being objective.

        • CJ

          I’m just saying I haven’t seen a plan for how this is going to work. I dont dislike Freddy and I think he has another season like last year in him. But can he physically do 6th man long man stuff or does he have to be traded? The $4 million and penny pinching DH irks me.

          • descender

            They put him in the bullpen lat year out of ST, obviously they think he can handle it if they are willing to do the same thing this year.

  • Cris Pengiucci

    There are levels of success and failure. If Hughes struggles out of the gate, but the team is performing well, the Yankees are afforded more time to evaluate where he stands. If he utterly fails they will be inclined to move quickly, as they will if he merely struggles and the team also struggles.

    I’m OK with the Yankees rigging the competition (again) this spring. (I wasn’t OK with it last time.) But I do believe the amount of rope Hughes is given has nearly as much to do with the Yankees early season fortune as it does with Hughes performance.

  • Steve (different one)

    The amount of rope Hughes gets could depend entirely on how well the rest of the rotation pitches. If they are all lights out, why couldn’t they give Hughes longer to prove himself?

  • oscar

    bold prediction : the pitching rotation will change throughout the year.

    • Cris Pengiucci

      Going waaaaaay out on a limb there, aren’t you.

    • Jesse

      You can pretty much bank on that one.

      • Havok9120

        I trust that prediction more than I trust some banks.

  • Bobby two knives

    IMHO, I like the idea of Hughes being given the first 2 months to succeed/fail. Having Garcia and his 35 year old arm NOT performing at maximum output will allow him to (theoretically) be very strong for the remaining 4 months. In this sense, it’s a win/win. If Hughes succeeds?
    Garcia remains a viable and ready commodity in the case of one of the other 4 starters going down or not succeeding.

  •!/czm26 Craig

    Wasn’t Aceves part of the competition in 2010 as well?

    • Mike Axisa

      Yeah. If that was a true competition, Mitre would have won. He was awesome in camp that year.

  • jsbrendog

    i like this as a yankee fan. as a dude i feel bad for freddy

    • Midland TX

      Freddy is a pro. If his role is to sit on the shelf as a 6th starter insurance policy, and to act as another pitching coach and mentor for Nova and Pineda (here’s a guy who threw cheese when younger but eventually learned to “pitch”), I’m sure the Yankees would be thrilled and Freddy would be game.

      May as well let Hughes ride out the ups and downs of a full season, to see how he responds. He’s not auditioning to be Ace of the Staff. How bad would he have to be not to trot him out against Bruce Chen or Derek Lowe?

  • Mattchu12

    Look at how often we let Burnett go out there last year, when pitching was dire. This year, we go into the season with four guys who would be #2’s or better on most teams in the league. Let’s give him an extended chance to show what he’s got.

    As far as Freddy goes, I’m not even sure I want him in the rotation even if Hughes fails. Give Hughes at least two months, and by then, we might be talking Man-Ban.

    • nyyank55

      Agree 75% with you. We put up with that useless excuse of a pitcher, Burnett, for the past 2 yrs. How much worse could a full year of Hughes BE??? I say leave him in there the whole year and allow him to make adjustments as they are needed. At least Hughes seems intelligent enough to actually listen to his pitching coach, manager and catcher where as Burnett would hear but NOT LISTEN. Plus, I think that Hughes has proven that he can handle the NY pressure by what he has accomplished both as a starter and as a reliever. I don’t think Burnett ever adjusted to the big market atmosphere.

  • Joel

    “Those are pretty heavy words for a guy who hasn’t had a full and productive season in the bigs to date.”

    So making 29 starts and winning 18 games, like he did in 2010, isn’t a full and productive season?

    • JoeyA

      not after last year

      • Joel

        Certainly he’s in doubt after last season. The point is that he has shown the ability to have, in fact, a full and productive season. Joe forgot about 2010 when he said that.

        • Jon Targaryen

          Full as in no crappy second half

          • thenamestsam

            That’s not any definition of full I’ve ever heard before. A full season means playing the whole year, which he did. I’m with Joel on this one. That sentence clearly stood out to me as incorrect.

            • Jon Targaryen

              I should have clarified: full PRODUCTIVE season. He had half of a productive season in 2010. He also had half of an awful season.

              • thenamestsam

                That’s a silly way to look at it in my opinion. If he had put up those numbers over a full season without a dramatic split in quality would you be calling it a productive year?

    • Joe Pawlikowski

      I thought we were past the point of citing wins as a measure of productivity. Hughes had enormous run support that year. His ERA for the whole year was barely above average. From mid-May through the end of the season his ERA was nearly 5. No, I don’t consider that very productive.

      • CP

        Regardless of wins, I would still consider that a productive seasons. Not a great season, but productive.

        • Joel

          No, Joe. His full stat profile for 2010 tell enough of a tale for full and productive. Brilliant? No. Unfaltering? No. But it was both full and productive.

      • thenamestsam

        2.5 WAR isn’t productive? What baseline would you use for a productive season?

      • Staten Island

        Really? No measure at all? Put all the metrics on the table that you want, he still put himself in a position to win those games simply by enduring the length of the season. I won’t say wins are the ultimate measurement, but they can’t be completely invalid, can they?

  • JoeyA

    If this is true, where do we keep Garcia?

    He can’t pitch out of the bullpen, can’t be traded, and cant be sent down.

    Does anyone have any idea?

    • jsbrendog

      george steinbrenner’s bawx?

    • CP

      He goes to the pen. There’s no reason he can’t be a Ramiro Mendoza type swingman.

      • Cris Pengiucci

        I agree he goes to the pen, but probably strictly as a long man. He needs an extended warm up period, so they can’t quickly decide to pull the current pitcher and use him. They have to see the failure coming, and probably use him to start the next inning to give him enough time.

        • CP

          There’s nothing wrong with that role, but are you sure he needs a long warm up time?

          • Gonzo

            I remember hearing something like that because of his past injury issues he needs a little longer than usual. I have no clue if it’s true or how much longer.

          • Cris Pengiucci

            From what I’ve read, due to previous injuries, he needs like 30 minutes. Sounds like he’s suited for mop up duty and not much else out of the pen. I’m OK with that. If a starter gets injured or doesn’t perform, he’s ready to step in.

    • Fernando

      I believe it has been written that Garcia can’t be traded until June, unless they have his permission. Maybe he would ask to be traded if he doesn’t win the 5th spot. He’s fairly cheap at 4M, but not sure how much more in incentives.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      He can be traded with his consent before a certain date, am I correct? He also can pitch out of the bullpen (whether successfully or not I won’t touch). He also can actually just be released with the team eating the contract.

      Don’t worry too much about Freddy if things don’t go his way. He’s a big boy.

  • me

    hughes will win 20. be the #2

    it should be rigged.

  • CountryClub

    I agree with everyone else. This just makes the most sense. Hughes should get every opportunity to prove his long term value.

  • Gonzo

    I think I am the only one that thinks it should be a competition. Oh well.

    • Kevin Winters

      You’re not the only one but hey it’s what they always do which is keep giving him chances. If he struggles this yr they’ll just pencil him again

  • Hmmm

    I miss being really really excited about Phil.

    • Cris Pengiucci

      I still am. Hoping for an exciting, come-back season from him, setting the stage for him to return to a projected front of the rotation starter. And Joba too, once he returns to form from TJ surgery.


      • YanksFanInBeantown

        Joba to the rotation!

        • Havok9120

          Yaaaaaaahhhhhh!! Wooooooooooooo!!!1!one!!

  • cranky

    I’m absolutely hoping its Hughes, and not Garcia.
    A healthy Hughes has everything he needs to be a good starter. A plus fastball, a plus curve, a decent off-speed pitch, a cutter for a different look, strength, size, etc.
    If he isn’t healthy, all bets are off. But, as of now, he’s healthy.
    As a reliever, Hughes could be very good–again–but the Yanks don’t need him in that role. And, anyway, with the hard throwers they have in their pen–everyone but Wade throws hard–Garcia would bring a different look.
    Hughes hasn’t been healthy. His shoulder problem was never diagnosed–at least not so us fans would know–but it was definitely a problem. No young pitcher goes from throwing 7+innings at 94 to losing 3-4mph without some kind of injury.
    Hughes is 25. There’s still plenty of time for him to be the workhorse #1-#3 starter he’s been expected to be.
    Fingers crossed.

    • jsbrendog

      i disagree that a healthy hughes has any sort of out pitch once he gets a hitter to 2 strikes

      • jsbrendog

        which, to clarify, since you didnt directly say, i consider something necessary to be a good starter as you put it

  • Dale Mohorcic

    Can Freddy throw with his left hand?

    • Cris Pengiucci

      Have him work with Pat Venditte. Become the lefty/righty out of the pen.

    • Bo Knows

      might as well, its not like he’ll have much of a change in velocity throwing southpaw instead of his right.

    • Gonzo

      His left arm has a clean slate of health!

      • Cris Pengiucci

        Think of the upside!

  • Robinson Tilapia

    I think Phil Hughes should be given every opportunity to win the fifth starter’s spot. Thank you, Freddy, for 2011. You reinvented yourself well, and I hope you approve a trade to another team so that you can help stabilize their rotation as you did ours.

    However, I don’t think this is “rigged” in any way. I could very easily see the narrative shift to “Phil helped us in the bullpen before, and we know he can do it at a high level again” by the start of the season if things don’t go as planned. I don’t think anything is too set in stone here.

  • Bryan V

    The simple fact is we know Garcia’s upside. We saw it last year. And at his age there’s reason to believe Garcia will never reach that upside again.

    Phil on the other hand we don’t know. How high can he go? There’s no way to tell. Sure, you can make an educated guess, but there’s no reason to believe he’ll never be a top 3 starter in the Yankee rotation. On the other side of that coin is the fact that Phil’s downside is lower than Freddy’s.

    But remember… we’re talking about a team that has the luxury of betting on that higher upside. So why not?

    • fin

      Im not so sure Hughes down side is any greater than Garcia. Garcia certainly comes with his injury hitory and vastly dimished stuff. If Garcia cratered I dont think it would shock anyone. I think in the end they have similar downside potential with Hughes being much younger with a better upside.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      Do guys in their mid-30’s with 10+ years in the bigs still have “upside?”

      • Havok9120

        Everyone has “upside.” “Upside” is the difference between Freddy’s 2011 and his 2007. Or even his 2010. Just like its the difference between Bartolo’s first and second halves.

  • fin

    I recall that Cashman and someone else went down to check on Hughes, wherever he was working out. In hindsight, that could very well have been when the competiton for the 5th starter spot came to an end. The Burnett trade talks really heated up not long after that. The Yankees saw Hughes was in much better shape, dedicated and throwing the ball well. The same reports we are getting out of St.
    I still dont think signing Garcia for $4mil was a mistake. It allowed them to trade Burnett and have an insurance policy for injury. I certainly take Cashmans proclomations of Hughes as a top of the rotation starter with a grain of salt, but I think its not too much of a stretch to see him as a better pitcher than Garcia or Burnett.

  • j

    The competition should be rigged – in favor of Garcia. I just have no faith in Hughes ever being more than a back of rotation starter – and thats best case scenario. He has never been good as a starter – even when he won 18 games his secondary stats didn’t match up. He even flunks the eye test. His stuff is pedestrian. His curve has never been much more than an average pitch in the bigs, his changeup is practically non-existent, and his cutter is good, but he telegraphs it to the batter. The only thing going for him is his fastball, which has been good at times in the past. I just don’t see anything special, or even the foundation for anything special. The only reason why he is a candidate is his former top-prospect status. If this guy weren’t named Phil Hughes we would have given up on him a long time ago.

    • Steve (different one)

      As opposed Garcia’s “secondary stats”? Did those line up last year? And if Hughes has pedestrian stuff, what is Garcia’s “stuff”? Sedentary?

      I like Garcia as a 5th starter quite a bit, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say Hughes has the higher ceiling at this stage in their careers. Why not give him a little while to see how close he can get to it?

    • fin

      Yes, giving up on young pitchers is always the wise way to go. Especially when you have a stud like Garcia around. I dont know how good Hughes will be, I certainly have my doubts and bascially feel hes probably better than Garcia, when hes healthy. Giving up on him before seeing how he can pitch when healthy would have been exactly the kinda of move that has come back to haunt the Yankees of the past.

    • Kevin Winters

      You have to remember Hughes always gets the benefit of the doubt

  • Ray R

    I keep seeing all of these comments about how great Hughes is. But Hughes hasn’t been a dominant starter since his days at Trenton. Look, I hope he gets his stuff together – but the reality is he may be better suited for the ‘pen. After spending parts of 4 seasons watching him implode up here, either from injuries or inability, I’m not sure I want to waste a rotation spot on the kid.

    • Steve (different one)

      Your first sentence is a bit of an exaggeration, no?

      • Havok9120

        A bit.

        “Higher ceiling than Garcia” =\= “great.”

        Heck, change it to “BETTER than Garcia” and it still wouldn’t be a ringing endorsement to greatness.

  • nsalem

    The reason Hughes started out in 2010 with a bang is that he was pitching against triple A level competition. He faced the Orioles three times who were playing under .400 baseball. The White Sox once who only had 2 hitters batting over .235 at the time and Andruw Jones batting cleanup against a righty.
    The Mets twice an awful Astro team and he lost to the Mariners who had one of the worst offensive team in baseball, plus a really offensively challanged Oakland team. I’m not against Phil getting another chance, I’m a Yankee fan and hope he does well. I don’t think Freddy is any better than a good backend starter, but I wish the people who report about Phil’s great half (which has been his only decent strecth as a starter would be a little more objective about that great first half.

    • fin

      Hughes was a 24yr old starter who made the all star team and overall had a fine season, certainly good enough for people to be excited about. He went in to 2011 as the pojected number 2 starter, with everyone knowing he had to make progress to truly be a number 2. No idea why people want to diminish his season and use terms like he was facing AAA teams. I’m fairly certain that all those teams you mention would destroy any AAA team. While there was certainly casue for some concern after 2010, as he seemed to tire a few weeks before the all star break. All in all though, I think a reasonable take of the 2010 season was Hughes was deveoping into a quality starting pitcher.

      • nsalem

        I disagree. Go through the game logs of the teams he beat and you will see how absolutely weak the teams he was facing were. When he beat the Oriole’s for the 3rd time they were 16 and 42. When he pitched against the A’s Cliff Pennington was leading off, Kurt Suzuki was the clean-up hitter and Chavez was batting 5th. Suzuki’s OPS+ in 2010 was 91. How many MLB teams have you seen with hitters that weak. When he beat the White Sox 8 weeks into the season 5 of their hitters were batting under .200. He was hit hard by the Mariners and they have been cited as the worst offensive team of the modern era. I’m not against Phil getting another chance, i just don’t buy the notion that his first half of 2010 was anything special. I’m a Yankee fan and want to see Phil dow well. I think you would be hard pressed to find a starting pitcher who was ever as fortunate as Phil to go through a half a season of such poor opponents. I put no value in his first half of 2010 and just view it as an anomaly. As a Yankee fan I hope I’m wrong and you are right.

        • fin

          I’m far from sold on Hughes, except him probably being better than Garcia, and its worth seeing what he is when healthy. I’m not buying that every strong start he had that season was against bad teams, lol nor am I willing to do the research to prove it. At the very least he was pretty much dominate against those teams,which is all he had control of.
          In my memory Hughes started to look tired before the all star break and for the most part didnt have the same stuff for the rest of the season. It wasnt jsut the teams he played against, but lost velociy and overall stuff leading to the inablility to put hitters away. To somewhat validate that line of thinking he came into camp in 2011 and had nothing leading to long stint on the IR.
          Again, I dont think Hughes is the top of the rotation guy, but its worth finding out what he is before putting him in the BP, infavor of starting a 35yr old junk baller.

  • Matt :: Sec110

    I think it should be Garcia’s job going in and Hughes has to take it from him.

    If Phil doesn’t dominate in spring, I don’t see the harm in going down to 3A.

  • Red Stag

    Is there any chance Hughes starts the season in AAA? Or would that be a waste of time? He can stay stretched out and keep developing the invisible change-up.

  • ken

    If it’s a true competition we would not dismiss Adam Warren.

    • Rainbow Troll

      Did anyone ever really say “open,” though?

      • Havok9120

        Nope. Unlike last time, the candidates were clearly only Hughes and Garcia.

        As it should be.

    • fin

      Guys like Warren and Phelps are not in a great position. They dont seem to have a spot on the major league staff right now, and their value to the Yankees as depth in the minors is probably greater than value the Yankees would get in a trade. Injuries could help work these things out, but with Garcia waiting in the pen and Man Ban/Betences lurking, it cant be taken as a given they would get a call up with injuries. It will be interesting to see how things play out for those guys, as they both seem ready for their shot at MLB.

      • Robinson Tilapia

        Well, when a starter is needed, I think it’s pretty safe to say one of them will get their shot. They’ll have to make the most of it when it occurs to keep up with the higher pedigree guys. If Ivan Nova was a reminder of anything, it’s that your next home-grown star may not always be who you thought it would be.

        • fin

          That was kinda of my point, I’m not sure they will get their chance with injury. The first guy to get the call would seem to be Freddy. If there was another injury and it was say a few months into the season, there is certainly a chance that Betances or ManBan would get the call. There best chance would be for injuries to happen early in the season.

          • Robinson Tilapia

            It depends on what role whoever lost the fifth starter spot held at the time, whether that person was even still with the team, etc.

            Would the team be more likely to go Banuelos/Betances for a spot start as the season wore on? That makes sense on the surface, but I’m not so sure. Everything we’ve read so far makes it seem like there’s a commitment to having them spend the season in AAA.

            My hunch: It’s pretty likely you see a cameo by one of Phelps/Warren/Mitchell by June.

            Sometimes you have to fight your way to the top.

  • LiterallyFigurative

    I’m pulling for Hughes simply because his success has longer-range implications than Garcia’s.

    A solid starter in his mid-20’s has value. He can be part of your long-term rotation, or he could recoup his value, making him a trade chip (in case we need a good outfielder to replace Swisher/Granderson)

  • Red Stag

    Get rid of Hughes & his 3.2 mil salary cause he sucks… Give Phelps a chance, he’s cheap & will probably do as well as Hughes. Get off the Hughes (starting pitcher) bandwagon cause that wagon has 4 flats.

  • DM

    I’m all for the competition — but not for the rigging. Hughes has been coddled long enough. Excuses, excuses. And I’m amazed at the Garcia naysayers here. The glass is half-empty for a guy who pitched to a mid 3s era in the AL East last year (something that Hughes never did — even in his 18 win season), handled pitching in NY, and saved the rotation’s bacon last year when Phil flopped. Yet the glass is half-full for Hughes who got shelled last year, mysteriously loses his velocity from time to time — with no clear cut reason. People say he was injured last year — what injury? Inflammation? Tendonitis? What pitcher doesn’t show that after a few innings? Or is this more excuses for a guy who can’t seem to maintain his shoulder strength over pitches and innings? I’m glad they prodded him to get in shape. I’m glad he’s throwing well in bullpen sessions. But what happens if after 3 or 4 ST starts his velocity starts to lessen again? Or when he has to go from 65 pitches to 90 pitches, his fastball drifts down from 94 to 90? Then what? Based on last year, it should be Garcia’s job to lose. Let Phil take it away from him if he can. No more excuses.

    • DM

      And I’ll add something more about Garcia that I can’t say about Hughes. Garcia knows how to pitch. He can fight through a game without great stuff. He can get outs with his head. When I see that radar gun reading on Hughes’s 4-seam fastball say 89-91, I know it’s gonna get ugly quick. There is no Plan B when that happens; it becomes batting practice. And Garcia makes for a nice change of style between all these hard throwers. I’d love to sandwich him in between CC and Pineda just to throw lineups off their timing.

      • Jon Targaryen

        Well, whenever Garcia gets through a game it’s without great stuff…

        • DM

          I know what you’re saying, but stuff isn’t just velocity. He generates a lot of movement with his split. And instead of batters catching up to it over the course of the season, he maintained it. Beneath the sweat is a wily competitor who successfully reinvented himself. But judging by more than a few comments here, that seems to be meaningless to their evaluation of him. The heat is nice to have but Hughes was depicted as a power pitcher — except he often doesn’t have that power. Nova — who wasn’t known as a power pitcher — routinely lit up the gun much more than Hughes. An often less than plus fastball along with a curve Hughes doesn’t command doesn’t add up to frontline starter to me. And at this point in his career he hasn’t learned to paint the corner with a knee high strike when he doesn’t have the gas.