Second-Guessing Yankees Decision to Start Phil Hughes
I was talking with David Cone over lunch last June when the subject of Phil Hughes came up. Hughes had been awful as the teamâ€™s fifth starter, giving up more than five runs a game and rarely reaching the fifth inning. I asked Cone if the young righthander would ever come close to being the pitcher I watched no-hit a powerful Rangers lineup for six-plus innings a few years back.
â€œNot if he doesnâ€™t develop a third pitch,â€ Cone told me. â€œHe only has two pitches, and thatâ€™s not enough to be a starting pitcher in the American League. Heâ€™d be great in the bullpen as the bridge to Rivera.â€
That night Hughes made his first appearance in middle relief, throwing two shutout innings against the Nationals, striking out two and allowing one hit. He never returned to the rotation, instead becoming the bridge to Mo that Cone predicted. A disappointment as a starter, Hughes became a vital cog in the Yankees’ run to their 27th championship.
I thought about that conversation when I heard Joe Girardiâ€™s decision to make Hughes his fifth starter. As a longtime Yankees fan, I am happy for Hughes but disappointed in the decision. ESPNâ€™s Buster Olney reports the Yankees are convinced that Hughes has added a good change-upâ€”the vital third pitch Cone said he needed. I hope he is right. But either way, unless Hughes is lights out, heâ€™s in a holding pattern until Rivera finally calls it quits.
When that day finally comes, Joba Chamberlain will slide into Moâ€™s job and Hughes will return to the vital role as the rock-solid bridge to the Yankeesâ€™ closer.
There were many reasons it took the Yankees six years to return to the World Series, but none bigger than the collapse of their middle relief corps. The failure to find the arms to replace the Mendoza-Nelson-Stanton act often turned Rivera into a spectator. That all changed last season when Hughes took the lead role, supported by Phil Coke and Alfredo Aceves.
Do the Yankees need to develop another starting pitcher? Sure. Andy Pettitte could retire. And Javier Vazquez, who was less than stellar in his first try with the Yankees, could flop or turn in a good season and leave as a free agent. But impenetrable middle relief was what separated the Yankees from everyone else when they won four titles in five years. Hughes made sure Rivera only pitched one inning last year, a big reason Mo pitched fewer innings but had more saves than in any of the past five seasons.
So now weâ€™ll see if the Yankees have enough depth in the bullpen to replace Hughes. A Hughes-Chamberlain combination in front of Rivera would have made the Yankees all but unbeatable in the last three innings. Isnâ€™t that more important than seeing Hughes every fifth game?
Jon Pessah writes on the intersection of sports & culture. He is a regular contributor at TrueSlant (http://trueslant.com/jonpessah) and a founding Editor of ESPN The Magazine. He Tweets @jonpessah.