Mailbag: What happens when Phil Hughes comes back?

Longtime reader Travis recently sent us this email:

I was wondering about the Phil Hughes situation.  I heard that the Yankees are stretching him out to come back as a starter.  I also heard that when he comes back, they might move Colon to the long man spot.  I think that instead of moving the starter that has been consistently one of the top two starters on the team, to the long man spot, that maybe the Yankees should look at Nova.  I’m not sure if Nova has been getting better or not, but he wasnt real great at getting into the 6th, 7th or 8thinning without problems.  But Nova HAS been decent with this first 3-5 innings, which to me would make him ideal as a long man out of the bullpen.

On behalf of the entire TYA staff, I wanted to take a minute to address this concern. To begin, I can confirm that the Yankees are stretching out Phil Hughes to return to a role in the starting rotation. Steve S. and I saw Hughes’ rehab start on Sunday in person, at MCU ballpark on Coney Island. Hughes beat the A-ball hitters like a drum, and was reported at topping out at 95 mph on the radar gun. The Newark Star-Ledger is reporting that Hughes will start Friday in AA, as he continues his march back to the big leagues.

Hughes was always going to come back as a starter. The Yankees have invested too much in developing him to be one and the perception (and I emphasize that it is the perception) is that he is more suited to that role than, say, Joba Chamberlain. This will only become a problem when Bartolo Colon returns to the rotation, and if he returns as strong as he had been.

Before writing this post, I touched base with my TYA colleagues to make sure that I wasn’t missing any information. I can confirm that none of us has heard any rumors about Colon shifting to the bullpen upon his return. That stands to reason, because Colon has earned a spot in the rotation until further notice. Prior to going on the DL Bartolo was leading the Yankee starters in ERA (3.10, 132 ERA+) and WHIP (1.072). It behooves the team to give him as many innings as possible. That will only happen as a starter.

An argument could be made that the Yankees should shift Colon to the pen for a time to try to prevent an injury and then stretch him out in time for the postseason, but this is a straw man. When Colon comes back he’ll be well rested, and his injury wasn’t related to his arm. It was a fluke that occurred in the field. The risk with Colon was always that he could break down at a moment’s notice. Managing that could back fire just as easily as not. Expect Colon to start as well when he comes back from the DL.

The odd man out figures to be Ivan Nova for two reasons. First, you are correct. Nova struggles to go deep into ballgames. So far this season he is averaging only 5.2 innings per start. He is a risk to tax the Yankee bullpen when he pitches.

Second, the Yankees have consistently said that his stuff projects better out of the bullpen. Nova primarily throws a fastball and a curveball. Those two offerings represent 91% of the pitches he throws, with the occasional slider and changeup making up the difference. None of his pitches rates particularly well, but his fastball averages 92.3 mph and has at times been clocked as high as 96 or 97 mph. The argument is that as a long reliever or two inning reliever Nova would be able to air it out more and thrive as a fastball pitcher who mixes in the occasional off speed pitch to keep batters off-balance.

No matter what the Yankees decide, they’ll be in a position of strength if Phil Hughes and Bartolo Colon both come back from the DL healthy and effective. That hasn’t happened yet, and the spate of injuries the team has suffered so far this season is a reminder that nothing is assured when it comes to injuries. However, if everything goes according to plan, the smart money would be on Ivan Nova migrating to the bullpen.

20 thoughts on “Mailbag: What happens when Phil Hughes comes back?

  1. YankeesJunkie

    I agree with this for the most part. There is no reason for the Yankees to keep their second best starter out of the rotation. Also, if Hughes comes back healthy he will be better than both Nova and Garcia. However, Hughes still has three spot starts left and if Nova can go out and impress over the next two weeks I would have no problem in dropping Garcia to the bullpen to let a younger and more projectable Nova get a better look. The difference between Nova and Garcia on the playing field are minute, but their long term effects on the Yankees could be huge. If Nova can go out and continue to pitch well dump Garcia to the pen.

    • I thought of this, because I agree. If Nova continues to develop as he has been then it behooves the Yankees to keep him in the rotation. My only hesitation in mentioning Garcia as an option to the pen was that I don’t know how well his off speed offerings translate to a reliever role. I could see him being prone to the big inning, especially if he can’t locate his offerings with men on base.

      • YankeesJunkie

        I agree. Garcia probably would probably end up being used in the 6th and long relief. However, he is less prone of giving up the big inning if he is relief where the batters only will face him once over 2-3 than making a start every five days. If Nova is pitching more effectively than Garcia there should be no hesitation in dropping Garcia.

    • Duh, Innings!

      Second-best starter? Since when? This overrated underachiever posted an ERA around 5 after his 6-1 start last season and has an ERA over 10 in just three starts this year.

      Hughes won 18 games last year because he was the beneficiary of the most run support or close to that of all AL starters.

      A.J. Burnett is the #2 starter now. Any of the other three starters (Colon, Garcia, and Nova) could be the #3.

      Automatically handing Hughes a rotation slot if Colon returns before him is nothing short of ridiculousness.

  2. hwagner

    I saw him pitch on Sunday. Not very impressive. No worries; he will not be coming back to the majors anytime soon.

    • I’m not sure we were at the same game. Hughes struggled in the first inning, and then postively over powered batters for three innings. He retired nine consecutive Cyclones, efficiently, before giving up the homer.

      I’d say Hughes is right on track to come back in a couple weeks. The general news reports support this.

  3. Joe

    I was going to write the same thing about Garcia. I’m surprised he was not mentioned in this article. Garcia has zero upside, and gets hit hard by top offensives (see 2 red sox starts and vs. tigers I believe). I think Nova will get stronger as the year goes on as he gets more comfortable in the rotation (we also have to remember he has 21 total big league starts). Yesterday was an important start for him against a top offensive club, and he had ZERO walks. If at year’s end (barring any trades)going into October I have CC, Colon, Burnett, Hughes, and Nova, I’ll be happy.

    • As I mentioned above, I did not include Garcia because I’ve yet to hear mention of him as a reliever in any capacity, where as the other three have relieved already for the Yankees in the past few seasons.

      Also, Garcia has been uniformly better than Nova. In one fewer start he has pitched just 8 fewer innings (pretty much Nova’s appearance yesterday) and compiled a better ERA+ (113 versus 99) and a better WHIP (1.375 versus 1.450). It may seem counter intuitive, but if you had to make a choice between one or the other based purely on performance, unless Baseball Reference is lying to me (possible, but unlikely), you’d actually choose to keep Garcia in the rotation right now.

  4. jonathan

    Freddy garcia is the one that needs to leave the rotation when phil comes back
    he is mediocre

  5. Joe

    No argument here that Garcia is having a better statistical season, but I feel having Nova develop at the back of this rotation will help the yankees for years to come. Garcia is not going to be here next year.

  6. Agreed. I like good problems.

  7. Phil C

    Interesting discussion, but I think we just have to wait and see exactly when Hughes is ready to return. Colon, Garcia, and Nova might just make the decision easy (injury or ineffectiveness). And wouldn’t it be great if all three were pitching very effectively at that point it time. I really hope it’s a difficult decision!

  8. Duh, Innings!

    Garcia in relief? Why? He’s posted a sub-4 ERA as a starter. Stop looking at his W-L record.

    Hughes is all conjecture. What if he sucks his first start back, and then his next one? This isn’t spring training anymore.
    What if he still doesn’t have the strength to go five innings or more he’ll need to go so the bullpen doesn’t tank by August 1st?

  9. Duh, Innings!

    Mediocre? And Hughes with one full season where you all are blinded by his win total when he blew after his 6-1 start last year and has blown ever since is great?

    At least Garcia can pitch to major leaguers well. Get back to me when Hughes does, and has a fastball consistently 90 mph or higher.

    Hughes has been nothing but hype since day one and if the Yankees could swap him for Gavin Floyd or Francisco Liriano straight up, they should do it. Let’s see him lead Minnesota or the Chi-Sox to the promised land.

  10. Mark D.

    How is Freddy Garcia’s name not mentioned as a pitcher that can lose his rotation spot. Ivan Nova has been better lately, learning on the go. His ERA is in line with his FIP and xFIP, while Garcia is seemingly playing over his head according to those same stats. As of right now though Phil Hughes isn’t going to be back in the majors for a few more weeks, which means there is time for the games before then dictate who deserves to lose their starting rotation spot. A clearer picture is going to be made in a few weeks, than it currently is.

    • Duh, Innings!

      Why should Garcia lose his rotation slot? Because he gets shitty run support? ‘Dude has a below .500 record but a sub-4 ERA and that makes him a hard-luck pitcher.

  11. […] Mailbag: What happens when Phil Hughes comes … – The Yankee Analysts AKPC_IDS += "22813,"; AKPC_IDS += […]

  12. roadrider

    I’m not sure how you can figure that Nova is the odd man out after last night’s performance. I don’t think that Garcia’s suitability for the pen should be the determining issue here. We should all appreciate what Garcia has done so far but his numbers aren’t all that different than Nova’s and you have to take into account the injury risk and future potential both of which obviously favor Nova.

    There are most likely other young players in the Yankee system who can step up into a bullpen role leaving Garcia to a sixth starter/long man role. Gordon would then be the odd man out which seems fair to me since both Nova and Garcia have contributed more and are better pitchers than Gordon.

    At some point the Yankees have to develop their younger players and find out what they can do. Not all of them will make it but as long as they show that they are progressing (and Nova certainly has) they deserve priority over the emergency, scrap-heap pick ups.

  13. Dude

    The Yankees love to overrate their top prospects, like a teenage boy who overrates the only vaguely pretty girl who likes him. They want to protect this guy, and they don’t want him to have arm trouble like Chamberlain did after he was shifted back and forth from pen to rotation. But what about Nova? Hughes may have a bigger name, but he’s worth less than Nova. Hughes really does not use his curve or his change; he is all fastball/cutter. Nova, on the other hand, does. The 18 wins were a function of him having a good fastball the first part of the year. Without a fastball, he is mediocre. I say put Hughes in long relief and let the bitch learn how to pitch.

  14. […] all wondering where the Yanks will pitch all these guys and who will be the odd man out. MJR penned a piece exploring Phil Hughes’ return, and Rob Neyer recently posited that the Yanks will soon find […]

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