2013 Season Preview: The Number Fours

Passan: MLB targeting A-Rod (and Braun) in Biogenesis probe
Rosenthal: Yankees are “asking around about everybody”

Our season preview series continues this week with the starting rotation, though the format will change just slightly. Since there’s no clear starter/backup/depth lineage when it comes to starting pitchers, we’ll instead look at each type of pitcher — ace, number two, back-end, etc. — at different levels.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Number four starters are the black sheep of the rotation. The top three guys are important for obvious reasons, they’re the ones who will be expected the carry the team in the regular season and (especially) in the postseason. Fifth starters tend to be eminently replaceable and inconsequential. Fourth starters are just … there. Necessary, but not good enough to grab headlines and usually not bad enough to make teams seek a replacement.

St. Philip of Hughes
Phil Hughes is no kid anymore. He’s entering his seventh big league season and will qualify for free agency next winter. The 26-year-old has thrown 635 innings across 152 career games, so it wouldn’t be wrong to call him a veteran at this point. He’s been a top prospect, a rookie starter, an elite setup man, injured, an All-Star starting pitcher, a World Champion … you name it and it seems like Hughes has done it already.

Last summer, Phil followed up an awful April (7.88 ERA and 6.53 FIP) with five pretty strong months (3.90 ERA and ~4.32 FIP), with the end result being 32 starts and 191.1 innings that were almost exactly league average (4.23 ERA and 4.56 FIP). Hughes was maddeningly homer prone (1.65 HR/9) and that’s something that didn’t change all year. Even at his best he’d give up homers, they just happened to be solo homers because he never walked anyone (2.16 BB/9 and 5.6 BB%). Hughes quietly posted the tenth best K/BB ratio in the league (3.59), better than Hiroki Kuroda, Jered Weaver, and reigning Cy Young Award winner David Price.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

A minor back injury forced Hughes out of his Game Three start in the ALCS, and another back issue (maybe related, maybe not) sidelined him for several weeks in camp. He threw a simulated game earlier this week and the next step could involve a minor league start, but the bottom line is that he may not be ready in time for the start of the season. If not, he’ll open the year on the DL and presumably rejoin the rotation in the second or third turn through. Barring no setbacks, of course.

Hughes is a bit of a polarizing figure in Yankeeland. Some see a failed prospect, others see a useful fourth starter, others see a guy about to enter the prime of his career. Who’s right? Probably all three to some extent. It’s extremely unlikely Hughes will ever develop into the frontline pitcher he was projected to become a few years ago, but at the same time it’s obvious he’s a big league caliber starter right now. At 26 and going on 27 this summer, taking a step forward isn’t out of the question at all. He fits all of that criteria.

As far as the Yankees are concerned, the Yankees will need Hughes to be better this season than he was last year. They lost a lot of offense and will rely on their pitching to carry them, so Phil needs to take that step forward and put together six strong months instead of just five. He’ll have to curb the homer problem a bit — won’t be easy in Yankee Stadium and the other offense-happy AL East parks, obviously — and most importantly, stay on the field. Whenever he gets back from the DL, he has to stay healthy and make every start the rest of the way.

As far as his impending free agency, all Hughes needs to do to ensure a fat contract is repeat his 2012 effort. Guys who are still three years away from their 30th birthday and have had three league average seasons in the last four years tend to get paid well, especially when they do it in the AL East and have a strong playoff track record*. Will the Yankees be the team to give him his next contract? I’m pretty convinced the answer is no given the plan to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014. It’s one thing to let guys like Nick Swisher and Russell Martin leave as free agents, but it’s another to let homegrown players like Hughes walk, especially at his age. I wouldn’t be too happy if that happens.

* Hughes got crushed in the 2010 ALCS (11 runs in 8.2 IP), but otherwise he’s been nails in the postseason. We’re talking a 2.61 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 31 innings. Doesn’t mean much, but it’s better than the alternative.


Knocking on the Door
The Yankees have a few back-end types slated for Triple-A Scranton, with the best of the bunch being 25-year-old Adam Warren. The right-hander got pounded in his big league debut (and only career MLB game to date) last summer, allowing six runs and ten of the 17 men he faced to reach base in 2.1 innings, but he was much more effective in Triple-A (3.71 ERA and 3.72 FIP in 152.2 IP). I ranked him 17th on my preseason top 30 prospects list in part because a little of his prospect shine has come off in the last year, mostly because he repeated Triple-A and didn’t take much of a step forward (if any) in his performance. Warren has the tools to start — specifically a five-pitch fix and an aggressive, bulldog approach — but will need something else to click to reach that number four starter ceiling. I like him best as a short reliever, where he can scrap some of the miscellaneous pitches and attack hitters with his two best offerings.

The Top Prospect
It’s Warren, but for the sake of variety I’m also going to mention left-hander Matt Tracy. The 24-year-old southpaw has just one season as a full-time pitcher under his belt, yet he still managed a 3.18 ERA (3.63 FIP) in 99 innings for High-A Tampa last year. He uses his big — listed at 6–foot-3 and 215 lbs. — frame to pitch downhill with a low-90s fastball and a fading changeup. The Yankees also have him working on a big-breaking curveball. Tracy signed as a college senior in the 24th round of the 2011 draft, so he’s a older than typical High-A prospects in terms of age but quite a bit younger in terms of pitching experience. I’m a fan and I ranked him 22nd on my preseason top 30, just a handful of spots behind Warren. The Yankees will aggressively bump Tracy up to Double-A Trenton this summer and he could force his way into the big league picture by the second half of 2014.

The Deep Sleeper
Probably going a little too far off the board here, but 21-year-old right-hander Cesar Vargas has the three-pitch mix and solid enough command to wind up near the back of a big league rotation. He pitched to a 3.13 ERA (2.96 FIP) in 46 innings with the rookie level Gulf Coast League affiliate and Short Season Staten Island last year, his first in the United States after three in the Dominican Summer League. Vargas obviously has a very, very long way to go, but all the tools are there for him to become a number four starter down the road. He just has to learn how to use them.

* * *

The Yankees and Hughes are in a very weird place this season. They obviously need him to be very good this summer, but the better he pitches the less likely it is he re-signs with the team after the year. Not exactly what we’re all used to, but such is life. Warren and Tracy give the team some decent back-end depth, plus they could serve as trade bait if the team needs to make a move or three. Cheap starters are always a hot commodity.

Passan: MLB targeting A-Rod (and Braun) in Biogenesis probe
Rosenthal: Yankees are “asking around about everybody”
  • uyf1950

    If Warren is the Yankees best internal hope to replace Hughes should he leave God help us.

    • jjyank

      If you’re only looking at one option, sure. But there’s still Brett Marshall (who was named in Mike’s #3 article) and Maybe Banuelos comes back strong in 2014. We’ll see.

      • phil

        not sure if Banuelos is going to pitch in the majors in 2014 if he is missing all of 2013…I would think triple A and he is going to have a innings limit…

        • jjyank

          I’m sure he’s going to start in AAA. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that it’s short sighted to think that Warren is our only hope if Hughes leaves. It’s not inconceivable that Banuelos gets a call up in 2014 if he’s pitching well.

          • Laz

            Nor is it inconceivable to think that Nova and Phelps can fill out as a 4th starter.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      Not sure if serious.

    • MannyGeee

      OHMYGAWD!!!!!!! Brett Marshall iz gonna replace teh Hughez!!! Cashman FAILED!!11!one!

      Get a grip dude. This is a comparison-based post (I.E. who ‘projects’ as a Future #4), not a prediction.

  • John C

    How bout Jordan Cote or Rookie Davis?

  • Robinson Tilapia

    “He’s been a top prospect, a rookie starter, an elite setup man, injured, an All-Star starting pitcher, a World Champion … you name it and it seems like Hughes has done it already.”

    Phil Hughes is whatever you want Phil Hughes to be. He can be a complete disappointment in one person’s eyes, and a success story in another’s.

    I think we were all a bit too precious with him at first because he was our first truly great pitching prospect in a very long time, and came around at the age where we actually were more privy to information on prospects that weren’t the kind of wonderchildren that Brien Taylor was supposed to be. We’ve all grown since and understand that they’re never guarantees, no matter how much we want them to be.

    I hope he has a great 2013 and is a Yankee for years to come. My hugs are hard to break out of.

    • Jim Is Bored

      I find it ironic that at this point it seems like people would love it if one of the Killer B’s had become what Hughes is. Still so with Brackman and Betances.

    • Laz

      If we put it in perspective he hasn’t been that bad. 2007 BA top 10
      1. Daisuke
      2. Gordon
      3. Young
      4. Hughes
      5. Bailey
      6. Maybin
      7. Longoria
      8. Wood
      9. J Upton
      10. Andrew Miller

      Hughes has been better than 5 of them, very close to 1 (Bailey) in almost every category, and worse than 3, Gordon, Longoria, Upton. He hasn’t been great, but they could have ended up so much worse off.

  • phil

    If Adam Warren is a number 4 starter why is he not contending for a job this year He has been in Triple A two years now!

    • MannyGeee

      Because the big club is chock-full of back-end starters.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mattpat11 Matt DiBari

    I sort of had no idea there was such a thing as a fourth starter “stop prospect”

    • http://www.twitter.com/mattpat11 Matt DiBari

      That should, of course be “top prospect”

  • dalelama

    Let’s face it, Hughes’s dinosaur arm delivery is going to preclude him from being more than just an average starting pitcher.

    • jjyank

      Okay Larry Rothschild.

    • Gonzo

      Let’s face it. The T-Rex was relegated to mop-up duty because of his delivery.

    • MannyGeee

      unfair to say since Kei Igawa had orangutan arms and nothing ever became of it.

      Also, Rajon Rondo has alien hands, and Shaq’s giant feet are why he keeps getting work in Buick commercials.


  • Larrym., Fl.

    Mike, you indicated that if Hughes pitches well this could mean that the Yanks may not resign him. Considering Pettitte and Kuroda are gone after 2013. This would leave CC, Phelps, and Nova without Hughes. Assuming Phelps and Nova progress during 2013, the rotation is still weaker then this year.

    Hughes needs to make some corrections and could fill as a Number 2. Warren truly had one bad start which if he is a true prospect will learn from the drubbing administered to him. With the likes of Arod, Teix. and possibly Cano which seems imperative with the aging Jeter filling less of the role as the leader by example. The Yankee mandate to live and die by 189 which is reasonable if you have a nucleus of a veteran squad in key positions with younger players filling the roster from the minors or trades.

    St. Hughes if healthy and progressing needs to be resign or traded for a young under control position player which the Yankees do not have at the lower level. This would mean a rebuilding phase in 2014 with a decent core.

    • MannyGeee

      Rule #1: Never mortgage the future for today
      Rule #2: Never do the complete and polar opposite

      • LarryM., Fl.

        MannyGeee: Please explain rule 2?

        I tried to explain either keeping Phil if he does well or trade if the Yanks do not want to pay him. It seems logical to me. I especially need assistance with rule 2.

        • Jersey Joe

          #1 and #2 together means that you have to stay balanced. When you’re 16 games out of the 2nd Wild Card in late June, you don’t somehow trade for Chase Headley. When you’re 9 games on top of your division in mid-late July, you don’t trade away good prospects, when you could save them for later.

  • JFish

    Assuming Phil either matches or improves upon his 2012 performance and hits free agency, would you take the over or the under on: 6 years/$60mil?

    • jjyank

      I don’t see him getting 6 years. I know he’s younger than most guys who hit free agency, but I’d say he’ll wind up with 4 years, maybe 5.

      Just to throw something out there, maybe the Edwin Jackson deal at 4 years, $52 mil?

      • MannyGeee

        That passes the sniff test. To me he is remarkably similar to Edwin Jackson in terms of talent and potential (and frustration)… So that number from a Texas or Chicago feels about right.

  • Fart

    “If you remove all of Hughes’ bad post-season innings he’s good.” Brilliant!