2011 Season Preview: Phil Hughes

As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think there was anything more exciting to watch in 2010 than Phil Hughes coming into his own as a big league starter. He made every start without incident (except when they skipped him), made the All-Star Team, and tossed up an absolute gem in his first career playoff start against the Twins in the ALDS. There’s not much more anyone could have asked from the kid in his first full season as the member of a Major League rotation.

Heading into 2011, Hughes is no longer the young, interesting guy in the fifth starter’s spot. He’s being counted on as one of the team’s top three starters, and could very easily start the second game of the season behind CC Sabathia. There were plenty of positives as well as a handful of negatives to be taken away from last season, which is why pinning down what Hughes will do in 2011 is so tough.

Best Case

It’s very, very easy to dream on a young pitcher like Hughes. He was so dominant early in the season, with a sub-3.00 FIP in his first eleven starts and an ERA to match, that you can’t help but fantasize about him doing that over a full season. Hitters couldn’t catch up to his fastball or lay off the breaking ball in the dirt, and the cutter moved just late enough to induce weak contact or swings and misses. It was glorious.

Well, the best case scenario has Hughes repeating that level of performance over a full season. How would he go about doing that? By mastering a changeup, first of all, which would be akin to Jorge Posada suddenly turning into a Gold Glove caliber catcher. That pitch is what Phil needs to better combat left-handers, who tagged him for a .323 wOBA in 2010 and .343 over his entire career. Being able to consistently retire lefties will also help control the homerun issues that surfaced last in the season; 17 of the 25 homers Hughes allowed came off the bat of a lefty.

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Developing a changeup and limiting the damage caused by left-handers would certainly be a step in the right direction for Phil, but we’re looking at the best case scenario here. For that to be realized, Hughes would also have to get back to being the ground ball machine he was in the minors, when he boasted a stellar 54.9% grounder rate. Strikeouts and grounders are a wonderful way to live life, and would vault the Yankees’ young right-hander into the game’s upper echelon of starting pitchers.

The last thing that needs to be addressed is durability. Hughes held up pretty well over the largest workload of his career last season, throwing 192 total innings between the regular season and playoffs. The Yankees say he’ll be without limits last year, so 200+ is no longer some nice round number to target down the road, it’s an expectation. If Hughes can boost his strikeout rate to eight per nine while keeping his walk rate around three per nine with a 50% ground ball rate, we’re talking about a right-handed Sabathia, a five win pitcher at the minimum and a seven win monster at the peak.

Worst Case

Young pitchers can be a risky proposition, especially when you stick them in the AL East. Hughes passed the test in 2010, but there were definite red flags down the stretch. He became very homer prone in the second half, allowing 17 long balls in his final 88.1 IP (1.73 HR/9). His strikeout rate dropped while his walk rate climbed as the season went progressed, and Phil’s two starts against the Rangers in the ALCS left a lot to be desired.

The worst case for both Hughes and the Yankees would be if those trends proved to be indicative of the right-hander’s true talent level instead of simply being a late season slump. In fact, the peripheral stats could continue to decline to the point where we’re looking at a pitcher struggling to get strike three or keep the ball in the park. The 2010 version of Javy Vazquez does a damn good job of approximating what Hughes’ worst case scenario would be this summer.

Beyond performance, there’s also the whole injury issue, which applies to any pitcher regardless of age, size, and track record. Hughes threw 80.1 more innings in 2010 than he did in 2009, and 46 more than his previous career high set half-a-decade ago. A jump like that can be dangerous, and one of the last things the team can afford this year is to lose one of their top three starters for an extended period of time.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

What’s Likely To Happen

The range of expectations for Hughes is pretty large this season. He could take his game to another level and emerge as one of baseball’s elite starters, or he could be replacement level cannon fodder. I don’t think many of us would be surprised if either happened.

Hughes has already said he’s aware that he hurt himself by not throwing his changeup enough last year, particularly early on, so I expect him to be a little more aggressive with the pitch out of the gate. That doesn’t mean he’s going to come out and starting throwing 25 a game, just enough to keep hitters off balance and honest. Phil doesn’t need it to be a bonafide put away pitch, just a show-me fourth offering that gives hitters something else to think about is plenty.

As Joe detailed a few months ago, most of the homerun issues stemmed from an ugly, eight-start stretch in the middle in the season. The Blue Jays were also especially unkind to Hughes, accounting for more than a quarter of his homers allowed despite being just 13.2% of his batters faced. He’s a fly ball guy (36.1% in 2010, 35.8% career), so homers are inevitable in Yankee Stadium, but giving up one homer for every ten fly balls like he did last year probably won’t happen again; that’s a rate just one-third of the game’s starters experienced.

One last thing I want to mention is that Hughes is still only 24 years old. That seems to get skipped over quite a bit. Believe it or not, talented pitchers that young have this weird, unexpected tendency to actually, you know, get better with experience. It’s strange, but trust me, it’s happened once or twice in the past. Hughes could improve his performance this season just because he has a better idea of what he’ll face as a starting pitcher over the course of a 162-game season.

If the Yankees get 175 IP out of Hughes with an FIP in the low-4.00’s like they did last year, it would be a win overall because he’ll be a productive starter. It’s reasonable to expect some improvement, though it might not be a major step forward. It could be incremental, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

Cashman denies $54M+ offer to Chapman

Update by Joe (3/9/11 10:44 a.m.): According to Buster Olney, Brian Cashman denies having made an offer to Chapman. “We never made an offer… Never.” So there’s that.

Original Post (3/8/11 10:01 p.m.): From the head explodes department, Melissa Segura reports that the Yankees offered Cuban flamethrower Aroldis Chapman a contract “valued at more than $54 million” before he signed with the Reds last January. Holy crap. The info comes courtesy of a Florida law suit filed against Chapman’s representatives, the Hendricks Brothers and employee Carlos Thompson Rodney Fernandez. Chapman eventually signed a six-year deal worth just over $30M with Cincinnati.

The Yankees wined and dined the southpaw during the 2009 ALCS, though we heard they were out of the running a few days before he signed his contract. If true, well, we certainly can’t say the Yankees didn’t try. I have a feeling there’s (a lot) more to this story though.

2011 Draft: Potential Signability Players

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

If you’re new to this whole amateur draft thing, “signability” a fun little term that defines players with bonus demands so large that they fall in the draft because no one (or very few, anyway) wants to pay them. The Yankees and other teams have grabbed a few of these players in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft and met their demands in recent years, landing a premium prospect far below where their talent says they should have been taken. Dellin Betances is a perfect example of this; the Yanks grabbed him in the eighth round back in 2006 and bought him away from a Vanderbilt commitment for a cool million bucks.

Big market clubs aren’t the only ones gobbling up these signability players anymore, teams like the Royals and Pirates have smartened up and starting taking advantage of the generally broken draft system as well. That makes it that much harder for the Yankees to land premium talent, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Here’s a few high-end guys that could fall a few rounds in the draft because of money, not talent…

[Read more…]

Tinkering with the lineup, but not too much

I’ve burned a good amount of pixels over the last few days talking about lineup makeup. I based my assumption for when Derek Jeter would get his 3000th hit on the fact that he’s going to bat leadoff and also explored how the Yanks’ lineup order doesn’t matter all that much. Tonight, Marc Carig throws an interesting tidbit into the mix.

The Yankees, he reports, will tinker with their lineup after their off-day next week, but they’re going to be conservative in the tinkering. He writes:

If Derek Jeter gets moved in the batting order, the Yankees captain won’t be bumped out of the upper-third of the lineup, hitting coach Kevin Long said Tuesday. “That’s not even an option,” Long said.

If that’s the case, should Yankees manager Joe Girardi decide to make a change and install Brett Gardner in the leadoff spot, Jeter’s most likely landing spot will be hitting second in front of No. 3 batter Mark Teixeira.

Even if there are shifts in the rest of the lineup, Long said the same general rule applies, with middle-of-the-order bats remaining in the middle of the order even if their exact order changes. “You know that Tex, Alex and Cano are going to be in the middle,” Long said. “You know in the beginning it’s going to be Jete, Gardner, Swish or Granderson. We know the pieces.”

On Monday, I linked to David Pinto’s Lineup Analysis Tool analysis for the 2011 Yankees based on Marcel projections, and it returned an interesting idea. The “ideal” Yankee lineup would look like this:

Gardner
Teixeira
Jeter
Cano
Rodriguez
Granderson
Swisher
Posada
Martin

Of course, Jeter’s not batting third, and Teixeira will not hit second, but you get the point. It would take something of a leap of faith for Girardi to slot Cano into the three or four hole this year; it would be a tacit admission that either Teixeira or A-Rod aren’t fit for their old spots. But it’s easy after 2010 to make the case that Cano could and should handle on of those spots.

Again, though, I’m left with the same conclusion I had on Monday: There is no wrong answer here. The Yanks are still projected for over 5.29 runs per game, and the 0.003 difference in runs per game isn’t worth upsetting anyone who might take offense. Still, as Spring Training plods toward Opening Day, the lineups might start to get more and more interesting as we go.

Open Thread: March 8th Camp Notes

What's that, a slider? (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Today’s news and notes…

Here’s tonight’s open thread. Today’s Yankees game is being replayed on both YES and the MLB Network while SNY is carrying a replay of the Mets-Astros. As for meaningful games, both the Devils and Islanders are in action. Talk about whatever, enjoy.