Mailbag: Cano, Warren, Trade Candidates

Going with a rapid fire mailbag today, so nine total questions. The Submit A Tip box in the sidebar is the way to send us anything throughout the week.

(J. Meric/Getty)
(J. Meric/Getty)

John asks: Hypothetically speaking, if the Yankees were to trade Robinson Cano today, what type of package do you think they could expect in return? Considering the new rule that the acquiring team will not get comp picks if they lose him, would the package really be that significant? In Spring Training I think they could’ve gotten, lets say, Oscar Taveras and Shelby Miller from St. Louis. Now I don’t think they would get Taveras by himself. Am I off base?

Half-a-season of Carlos Beltran fetched Zack Wheeler, and Beltran had a clause in his contract that prevented the team from offering arbitration after the season. The Giants knew at the time they would be unable to recoup a draft pick. Beltran was also a corner outfielder with a long injury injury while Cano plays a more premium position and 159+ games a year, every year. There’s no way they should settle for anything less than a prospect of Taveras’ caliber. That said, Matt Carpenter is amazing and the Cardinals no longer need a second baseman. I know they were just an example though. A half-season of Cano should net the Yankees an elite prospect at the very least. I’d want someone MLB ready who could step right into the lineup after the trade.

Humphrey asks: Given the apparent need of the Tigers to improve their bullpen, is this a place the Yankees can match up? Is there something the Yankees could get in return that would be valuable to them?

The Tigers desperately need bullpen help, particularly capable late-game relievers. The problem is that they’re a contender and are unlikely to trade away big league players to get that bullpen. They’ll offer prospects instead, and they don’t have many great ones to offer. Sorry, but you’re not getting Nick Castellanos (or even Avisail Garcia, for that matter) for David Robertson. I can’t see the Yankees weakening the pitching staff, pretty much the only thing keeping them afloat these days, for minor league players who won’t help right away. I don’t see a good fit for anything more than a minor trade.

Travis asks: Do you think Adam Warren will get a shot at starting in 2014 or will he just stay in the bullpen?

Assuming Phil Hughes is allowed to leave and neither Hiroki Kuroda nor Andy Pettitte return, the Yankees will have to come up with three starters next year. Even if they sign some free agents, they won’t all be studs. I expect Warren to come to camp as a starter with the opportunity to win a rotation spot. I do think he’s best suited for the bullpen and have for a few years now. He’s been very good as the long reliever but I think he could also wind up contributing as a more tradition one-inning, late-game reliever at some point. Give him the chance to start though, he’s earned it. If they come to camp with an open rotation spot or two, they owe it to themselves to see what Warren can do.

SMC asks: What would it take to get Danny Espinosa from the Nationals? He’s clearly fallen out of favor with their organization, but he’s a young switch-hitter with power who plays the middle infield well, steals bases, and draws walks.

(Greg Fiume/Getty)
(Greg Fiume/Getty)

I have to preface this by saying I’m a huge Espinosa fan. He was awful this year (23 wRC+) while foolishly trying to play through a chipped bone in his wrist, and he’s since been placed on the DL and then sent to the minors. Espinosa has flirted with 20-20 in each of the last two years and came into this season with a career 98 wRC+. He’s also very good defender who can legitimately play shortstop on an everyday basis. I’d love to get my hands on him at this point while his value is down, especially since Washington has Anthony Rendon at second and seems disinclined to move Ryan Zimmerman off third. I don’t know what the Nationals would want in return, but if they wanted a good but not great prospect like Nik Turley or Ramon Flores, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Espinosa fits the Yankees needs very well going forward even if he is a low-average, strikeout-prone hitter. Power, speed, and defense on the middle infield is hard to find.

Ian asks: If Mark Teixeira‘s wrist is still hurting, what is the point of even trying to bring him back? It clearly isn’t right and isn’t likely to get right given the rigors of the season. Why not accept reality and do the surgery so the team can try to salvage the last three years of this now awful contract?

I disagree that it “isn’t likely to get right given the rigors of the season.” If the doctors say he is healthy enough to play, let him play. He can help the team. Wrist surgery is no small thing, you never want to cut into an important joint like that if it can be avoided.

Donny asks: The Yankees have three potential free agents who could be offered a qualifying offer — Cano, Curtis Granderson, and Hughes. This would result in a total of four first round draft picks, correct? If that is the case, are there any limits on how many compensatory picks a team is allowed or, in theory, could the Yankees have their entire team turn down qualifying offers that then resulted in 26 first round picks? That seems a little ridiculous to me if that is the case, no?

We could add Kuroda to that list as well, he’s definitely a qualifying offer candidate. Hughes is very much on the fence right now. But yes, there is no limit to how many compensation picks a team can have. The idea of letting the entire roster walk and netting 25 additional first rounders is obviously unrealistic, but technically it is possible. I don’t think it’s ridiculous at all either. If you have a lot of good players, you should be able to reap the draft pick reward if they decide to sign elsewhere.

Colin asks: Saw a blurb that the White Sox may look to sell at the deadline. What are the chances they move Alex Rios or Gordon Beckham? Rios would be a great fit for the Yanks right now.

Beckham, even the disappointing version who is just an okay player and not the star he was expected to be, would definitely help the Yankees. I have a hard time trusting Rios though. He is so wildly up and down. Here, look:


Source: FanGraphsAlex Rios

You’ve got a star player one year, a replacement level guy the next, a league average player the next … who knows what’s coming in the future? The 32-year-old Rios has hit well since the startof last season and seems to have figured it out, but is it worth gambling ~$20M through 2014? The Yankees are already saddled with Ichiro Suzuki and Vernon Wells through next year, I’d hate to add another dud outfielder to those two. Plus having Rios and Wells on the same team gives me nightmares about the mid-2000s Blue Jays.

Bill asks: Would never happen but say hypothetically the Dodgers were looking to trade Matt Kemp (once healthy) since they have Carl Crawford, Yasiel Puig and Andre Ethier. What would the Yanks have to offer if they even have enough?

Kemp, 28, was having a terrible year (78 wRC+) before hitting the DL with a hamstring problem. He had left (front) shoulder surgery during the offseason, and the team has acknowledged it is still giving him problems. That said, he put up a 146 wRC+ just last year and nearly went 40-40 in 2011. He’s not old, though he is well-paid (~$140M through 2019). I really don’t know what it would take to acquire Kemp; we don’t have any comparable trades to reference. The first Alex Rodriguez trade maybe? The contract and shoulder should drag the value down a bit, but it’ll still take a huge package. Multiple top prospects, I’m guessing.

Ari asks: Chris Stewart hasn’t hit a double all season. What is the record for plate appearances without one? Can we start the Chris Stewart doubles watch?

I hadn’t even realized Stewart was double-less until this question came in. Stewart has three homers and no other extra-base hits on the season. That’s hard to believe. Anyway, the record for most plate appearances without a double by a non-pitcher is 321 (!), which Rafael Belliard set with 1988 Pirates. Here’s that list, and here’s the list of most double-less games to start a season by a Yankee (doesn’t include last night’s game, but it doesn’t change much):

Rk Strk Start End Games AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SO BB BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Eddie Robinson 1955-04-14 1955-07-22 63 143 23 30 0 0 15 40 21 27 .210 .352 .524 .877
2 Gil McDougald 1955-04-13 1955-06-21 59 209 34 53 0 3 7 21 31 35 .254 .360 .383 .743
3 Phil Rizzuto 1955-04-13 1955-09-05 55 111 12 27 0 1 1 7 15 15 .243 .344 .288 .632
4 Enos Slaughter 1959-04-16 1959-07-25 51 69 9 11 0 0 6 15 17 11 .159 .272 .420 .692
5 Dick Howser 1968-04-13 1968-07-07 48 75 13 11 0 0 0 2 8 19 .147 .326 .147 .473
6 Norm Siebern 1956-06-15 1956-09-29 47 158 26 32 0 4 4 21 37 19 .203 .287 .329 .616
7 Frankie Crosetti 1941-04-18 1941-09-15 43 127 10 29 0 2 1 19 11 16 .228 .329 .283 .612
8 Horace Clarke 1968-04-10 1968-06-05 42 163 14 36 0 0 0 4 15 5 .221 .243 .221 .463
9 Chris Stewart 2013-04-03 2013-06-19 40 118 15 31 0 0 3 10 22 11 .263 .323 .339 .662
10 Bobby Richardson 1961-04-11 1961-05-30 40 157 10 32 0 1 0 10 2 5 .204 .233 .217 .450
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 6/20/2013.

Add in last night’s game and Stewart is at 41 games, still sitting in ninth place on that list. At some point he will yank a ground ball passed the third baseman and into the left field corner for a double … right? Yeah, it’ll happen eventually. He has about a month to do it before he sits atop that forgettable list.

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Update: Yankees place Teixeira on DL, call up Warren and Almonte

3:24pm: Both Warren and Almonte have indeed been called up. Teixeira has been placed on the DL and Bootcheck has been designated for assignment.

2:16pm: Via Sweeny Murti: The Yankees will indeed place Mark Teixeira on the 15-day DL with wrist inflammation today. They will use the injury to bring long-reliever Adam Warren back from Triple-A before the ten-day waiting period expires. Murti also hears outfielder Zoilo Almonte could be called up as well, though the team has yet to announce anything. Removing Chris Bootcheck from the roster would be the obvious corresponding move there.

Roster Moves: Youkilis, Neal, Bootcheck, Warren

The Yankees announced a series of roster moves this afternoon, so let’s recap:

  • Kevin Youkilis has been placed on the 15-day with a lumbar strain. That’s the same back injury that send him to the DL earlier this year. He woke up with numbness in his right foot and will see a specialist. Not the most surprising news in the world, hopefully the injury explains his lack of production.
  • Thomas Neal and Chris Bootcheck have both been called up from Triple-A Scranton. We heard both moves were coming earlier today. Neal will primarily DH against lefties while Bootcheck gives the bullpen a fresh long reliever.
  • Adam Warren has been optioned to Triple-A Scranton. He threw 85 pitches across six innings in yesterday’s 18-inning marathon, so he was the obvious send down candidate to clear to a roster spot for a fresh arm.
  • To clear spots on the 40-man roster for Neal and Bootcheck, the Yankees have transferred Eduardo Nunez to the 60-day DL and outrighted Cesar Cabral to Double-A Trenton. Because Cabral cleared waivers, the Rule 5 Draft rules no longer apply and he is officially Yankees property with no strings attached.
  • Obviously, David Adams remains with the team with Youkilis hitting the DL.

Warren finding a niche in the bullpen

(Jason Miller/Getty)
(Jason Miller/Getty)

Coming into this season, Adam Warren was at a weird place in his career. He repeated the Triple-A level in 2012 and pitched marginally better than he had in 2011, but not well enough to really force his way into the team’s plans. His disastrous one-start big league stint last summer didn’t help matters either. Warren was stuck in spare arm purgatory, a nice pitcher to have in the organization but hardly a cornerstone.

Instead of going back to Scranton for a third stint at Triple-A, the 25-year-old Warren made the team out of Spring Training with an assist from Phil Hughes‘ balky back. It was basically a repeat of last year, when David Phelps unexpectedly made the club out of camp thanks to Michael Pineda‘s shoulder. An injury to a projected starter forced the projected long man into the rotation, creating an opening in the bullpen. Phelps took advantage last year and Warren is looking to do the same now.

“I think Dave kind of started something last year when he came up and did well,” said Warren to Mark Feinsand on Monday. “For us guys down in the minor leagues, we’re kind of like, ‘Well, we might have a chance to help this team.’ So you kind of get that little bit of glimmer of hope. Now, this year, guys are getting some opportunities and we’re trying to take advantage of them. We have that confidence coming up that we know we can get outs, so I think that really helped us.”

In seven relief appearances this year, Warren has posted a 1.45 ERA and 3.07 FIP in 18.2 innings. Four of those seven outings lasted at least two innings, including his first (one run in 5.1 innings) and most recent (four scoreless innings) appearances. His strikeout rate isn’t anything special (7.23 K/9 and 20.3%) despite an above-average 10.4% overall whiff rate, but he has limited walks (2.89 BB/9 and 8.1 BB%) and gotten a ton of ground balls (52.8%). They aren’t the kind of peripherals that make you think he’s worthy of higher leverage work, but they’re plenty good enough to succeed in this role.

Warren hasn’t changed his approach much in relief, mostly because he’s turned lineups over a few times and needed to use all his pitches. His fastball has averaged 92.3 mph and topped out at 94.1 mph — a tick or two better than what he usually does as a starter — and he’s thrown his mid-80s slider and low-80s changeup nearly 20% of the time each. He’s thrown his upper-70s curveball once out of every ten pitches as well. Most guys scrap their third or fourth best pitch when they move into the bullpen, even long relief, but Warren has stuck with the kitchen sink approach.

“You just have to stay mentally focused,” said Warren to Chad Jennings earlier this month when asked about his role. “Things can change so quick. For me personally, I try to have a good attitude about whatever role I’m in. Opportunities arise. You do have to stay kind of mentally focused even though you may not be pitching in games that are close to start out with, just try to stay sharp for when you do get that opportunity.”

I wasn’t quite sure where Warren fit with the Yankees after last season, at least beyond being an extra arm in Triple-A for emergencies. It seemed like he was, at best, the team’s seventh starter and tradeable prospect. Kinda sorta useful. To his credit, Warren has taken advantage of his opportunity and become a valuable multi-inning reliever, someone capable of soaking up some bulk innings in blowouts without sending Joe Girardi to the bullpen phone every time a runner reaches base. He might only be the 22nd or 23rd man on the roster, but he’s pitched himself up the depth chart after being the 38th or 39th man on the 40-man roster just a few weeks ago.

Adam Warren and the unnecessity of two long relievers

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

When the season opened, the Yankees made a point of carrying relievers capable of throwing multiple innings in an outing. That meant Adam Warren and Shawn Kelley got the nod over one-inning guys like David Aardsma and Josh Spence. Phil Hughes started the year on the DL and carrying bullpeners who could provide length for the first few weeks made sense. No team wants to wear out their pitching staff in April.

Now that we’re three weeks into the season, the need for multiple multi-inning relievers — and multiple long relievers, especially — isn’t as great. Ivan Nova remains a drain on the bullpen every five days, but otherwise the trio of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte have shown the ability to pitch deep into the game each time out while Phil Hughes can do it on occasion. Sure, having a bunch of relievers who can throw multiple innings at a time is a nice luxury, but it’s no longer a necessity. Quality over quantity should be the focal point when it comes bullpen innings now.

Since his 5.1-inning appearance in relief of Kuroda in the second game of the season — 19 days ago now — right-hander Adam Warren has thrown a total of three innings and 42 pitches. Two of those innings came during a blowout win against the Indians, the other yesterday. He hasn’t warmed up on any other occasion during the last ten days, as our Bullpen Workload page shows. It’s a dead roster spot, especially since Joe Girardi seems to prefer David Phelps in long relief situations. The only way Warren gets into a game right now is a super mop-up situation, a blowout or extra innings.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Phelps hasn’t pitched well early on (6.23 ERA and 3.87 FIP), and it’s not just these last two appearances. The four shutout innings against Baltimore last week is the only one of his five outings in which he hasn’t allowed a run. He is a better pitcher than what he’s shown so far, but he needs to figure some things out. It happens. He should work on those things in low-leverage situations though, not the situations he’s seen recently. It should happen in the innings currently designated for Warren, basically. It’s the bullpen circle of life, especially for a young reliever: if you stink for two or three weeks you lose some responsibility.

Ideally, I think the Yankees should adjust their bullpen situation by sending Warren down to Triple-A and replacing him with a power reliever who can miss bats in the middle innings between the starter and the Joba Chamberlain/David Robertson setup crew. Cody Eppley doesn’t fit the bill — he’s been awful since the start of Spring Training anyway — but Mark Montgomery sure makes a lot of sense for that role. The right-hander has 15 strikeouts and one walk in eight Triple-A innings so far after whiffing 99 in 64.1 innings last summer.

Because Phelps threw 62 pitches on Sunday and will be out of commission for at least one more game (likely two), holding onto Warren for another few days makes sense. Once Phelps is ready to go though, I think he should be put into a more traditional long reliever role while Warren is swapped out in favor of someone who can miss bats. Montgomery is the obvious candidate but not the only option. Maybe Preston Claiborne or Sam Demel is better suited to help the team right now, who knows. Either way, the idea is to optimize the bullpen by replacing the seldom-used second long man with a more useful middle reliever who can miss some bats.

2013 Season Preview: The Relievers

Our season preview series wraps up this week with a look at the bullpen, the bench, and miscellaneous leftovers. Opening Day is one week from today.

(J. Meric/Getty)
(J. Meric/Getty)

Mariano Rivera is worthy of his own post, but he is just one of many when it comes to the bullpen. The Yankees used 17 different relievers last season, including ten for at least ten appearances. That is pretty much par for the course these days — they used 26 (!) different relievers in 2011 and 18 in 2010 — since no team ever makes it through the season without injuries or underperformance. In fact, the Yankees have already lost one reliever (Clay Rapada) to the DL and the season hasn’t even started yet. He is the first injured bullpener, but he won’t be the last.

The Setup Man
Over the last two seasons, soon-to-be 28-year-old David Robertson has emerged as one of the very best relievers in all of baseball. He’s pitched to a 1.84 ERA (2.15 FIP) with a 12.79 K/9 (34.8 K%) since 2011, all of which are top five marks among big league relievers. Robertson managed to curtail his career-long walk issue last season — career-best 2.82 BB/9 and 7.7 BB%, including just five walks in his last 33 innings — but I’m going to need to see him do it again before I buy that as real improvement. His track record of iffy command is too long to be washed away in one (half) season.

With Rivera back and Rafael Soriano gone, Robertson is the unquestioned Eighth Inning Guy™ and backup closer whenever Mo needs a day to rest. That means we’re unlikely to see him brought into mid-to-late-inning jams to clean up the mess, which is where he and his strikeout-heavy ways are best deployed. Regardless, Robertson is an extremely valuable reliever who will see a ton of high-leverage work. Outside of Rivera, he’s the most important pitcher in the bullpen.

The Lefty Specialist
The Yankees have had enough injury problems this spring, but one player who seems to have survived the bug is Boone Logan. The 28-year-old dealt with a barking elbow for a few weeks and didn’t get into a game until last week, but he appears to be on track for Opening Day. Logan threw a career-high 55.1 innings in a league-leading 80 appearances last summer, which may or may not have contributed to the elbow issue. Given his extremely slider usage — 51.4% (!) last year, the third straight year his usage increased — it would be foolish to think the workload didn’t contribute to the elbow problem somewhat.

Anyway, Logan has quietly emerged as a high strikeout left-hander these last two years, posting a 10.58 K/9 and 26.9 K% since the start of 2011. Despite the strikeouts, he hasn’t been especially effective against same-side hitters, limiting them to a .240/.309/.413 (.314 wOBA) line over the last two years. That’s nothing special for a primary lefty specialist — Rapada has been far more effective against left-handers — but he redeems himself (somewhat) by being more than a true specialist. Righties have hit just .243/.355/.386 (.315 wOBA) against him these last two years, so Girardi can run Logan out there for a full inning if need be. He’s definitely useful, though perhaps miscast as a late-inning guy.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Middle Men
It has been two years since either Joba Chamberlain or David Aardsma has had a full, healthy season. Both had Tommy John surgery in 2011 and both had another major injury as well — Joba his ankle and Aardsma his hip —  and both were pretty darn effective before the injuries. The Yankees will count on both as their pre-eighth inning righties this year, mixing and matching with Logan and Rapada (when healthy).

All of the team’s relievers are cut from a similar cloth and these two are no different. Both Joba and Aardsma are high strikeout guys with swing-and-miss offspeed pitches, the question is just how effective they will be following the injuries. Chamberlain, 27, was pretty bad in the second half last year before finishing strong while the 31-year-old Aardsma made one late-September appearance and nothing more. They could be awesome, they could be awful, they could be something in-between. I’m guessing we’ll see a bit of all three at times this summer.

Rapada, 32, will start the season on the DL due to shoulder bursitis and there is no timetable for his return. He’s been crazy effective against lefties in his relatively short big league career (.231 wOBA against), though righties have hit him hard (.453 wOBA). As a soft-tossing, low-arm slot guy with a funky delivery, he’s a true specialist. But damn is he good at what he does.

The Long Man
When Spring Training started, it was assumed the loser of the Ivan Nova/David Phelps fifth starter competition would move to the bullpen and serve as the long man. Phil Hughes‘ back injury is likely to land him on the DL coming Opening Day, meaning both Nova and Phelps will be in the rotation to start the year. Long man replacements include 25-year-old right-hander Adam Warren and 25-year-old left-hander Vidal Nuno, the latter of whom has gotten talked up as a potential Rapada placement. He’s been, by far, the more impressive pitcher in Grapefruit League play. Either way, the long reliever job will go to Nova or Phelps whenever Hughes returns, which could be as soon as the second turn through the rotation.

Knocking on the Door
Beyond Warren and Nuno — starters by trade who are relief candidates by default — the Yankees have a number of legit bullpen backup plans slated for Triple-A. The two most obvious candidates are right-handers Shawn Kelley, 28, and Cody Eppley, 27, both of whom are on the 40-man roster, have big league experience, and have minor league options. Kelley is a traditional fastball/slider/strikeout guy while Eppley is low-slot sinker/slider/ground ball righty specialist. There’s a good chance one of these two — likely Kelley because Eppley was been terrible in camp — will crack the Opening Day roster as a Hughes/Rapada replacement. Right-hander David Herndon, 27, will be in the big league mix once he finishes rehabbing from Tommy John surgery at midseason.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Among the bullpen prospects scheduled to open the season with Triple-A Scranton are 22-year-old slider machine Mark Montgomery, the team’s top relief prospect. He ranked tenth on my preseason top 30 prospects list and should make his big league debut at some point this season. Montgomery gets compared to Robertson but that isn’t particularly fair even though he’s also an undersized strikeout fiend with a trademark breaking ball. No need to set yourself up for disappointment like that. Remember, it took Robertson two years before he finally stuck in the show and three before he became truly dominant.

Right-hander Chase Whitley, 23, and left-hander Francisco Rondon, 24, will both be in the Triple-A bullpen and one phone call away as well. Whitley is a three-pitch guy who projects more as a middle reliever than a late-inning arm, but he’s a very high probability guy. Rondon opened some eyes in camp by flashing a knockout slider after being added to the 40-man roster in November. He needs to work on his command and get some Triple-A experience before being a big league option, however. Whitley is pretty much ready to go.

The Top Prospects
Montgomery is New York’s top relief prospect at the moment, but right-handers Nick Goody and Corey Black deserve a mention as well. The 21-year-old Goody posted a 1.12 ERA (~0.89 FIP) with 52 strikeouts and just nine walks in 32 innings after signing as the team’s sixth round pick last year. The 21-year-old Black pitched to a 3.08 ERA (~2.70 FIP) in 52.2 innings after being the team’s fourth rounder last summer, but the Yankees have him working as a starter at the moment. He is expected to move into a relief role in due time if he doesn’t firm up his offspeed pitches. Both Goody (#21) and Black (#24) cracked my preseason top 30 and both are expected to open the year with High-A Tampa.

* * *

The Yankees have had consistently strong bullpens during the Girardi era, due in part to his willingness to spread the workload around rather than overwork one or two guys. The front office has (mostly) gotten away from big money relievers and focused on adding depth and power arms. Girardi got away from his strength last year because of injury (Rivera, Joba, Robertson for a month) and ineffectiveness (Cory Wade), instead relying heavily on his primary late-inning guys. That will hopefully change this year and the team will get back to having a deep and diverse bullpen, something they’ll need given the diminished offense.

2013 Season Preview: The Number Fours

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.

(Star-Ledger)
(Star-Ledger)

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.

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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.