On the heels of his disastrous 2011 campaign, former Yankee phenom Phil Hughes is at something of a crossroads in his career. At 26 years old and entering his 6th season of professional baseball he’s no longer someone who we should advocate patience for, or is too young to draw any conclusions about. Thus far he’s been hurt 5 times in 6 years in the pros (3 more times in minors) including two lengthy DL stints in 07 and 11. Gene Michael told me firsthand that there are questions about his work ethic, which could go a long way towards explaining why his stuff has been so inconsistent and he’s been hurt so often. For those who missed it the first time, here’s what he said:
Gene Michael: “…Phil is better when he does his work. And his stuff was better when he pitched out of the bullpen. Not just the fastball, if you look at the cutter, it was much better when he worked out of the bullpen.”
Indications are he’ll have to (once again) earn a spot in the starting rotation in Spring Training, competing with the likes of Hector Noesi and Adam Warren. Neither of whom were ever as highly touted as Phil was as a minor league player. Noesi and Warren are considered to be back of the rotation starters at this level, Hughes was at one point the #1 pitching prospect in the game. But as we know that guarantees nothing, even the pitcher right behind him on the BA 2007 list Homer Bailey has struggled every bit as much as Phil has to find success at the MLB level. Outside of a strong 1st half in 2010 followed by a poor second half where he appeared to run out of gas, the Phil Hughes the Starter experiment may be in its final stages. We’ve heard Yankee officials say his stuff plays up in the bullpen, which is exactly what they were saying before they banished Joba to the middle innings. For an indication of why they may be leaning in that direction, check out Phil’s career role splits:
I Split G PA AB BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip tOPS+ as Starter 71 1663 1487 .260 .326 .425 .751 .292 109 as Reliever 49 215 198 .172 .237 .232 .470 .254 33
I Split W L W-L% ERA G GS WHIP SO/9 SO/BB as Starter 30 21 .588 4.90 71 71 1.361 7.0 2.14 as Reliever 6 2 .750 1.44 49 0 0.905 11.2 4.12
It’s as if you’re looking at two completely different pitchers. Strikeout to walk rate nearly doubles, and strikeouts per 9 climbs from 7 to over 11. BABIP drops almost 40 points, OBP almost 100 points and SLG almost 200. One guy is dominant and the other mediocre. What’s more, Phil Hughes the MLB reliever more closely resembles the pitcher he was in the minors.
Here’s his MILB totals:
W L W-L% ERA G GS WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB 32 8 .800 2.35 68 65 0.927 6.1 0.3 2.2 10.1 4.53
The trouble with this is twofold. First, the Yanks really don’t need another reliever. The bullpen is already stacked leading up to Mo with David Robertson, Rafael Soriano and Joba on the mend. Barring injury there’s no way he supplants the highly effective D-Rob or the highly paid Soriano. What’s more, the Yanks have let it be known they will be shopping for a Lefty this winter which could further crowd the bullpen picture. Especially if its someone with ability like Mike Gonzalez, who the Yanks have targeted numerous times in the recent past. If he loses a Spring Training battle for a rotation spot he’s going to be relegated to picking up crumbs in the 6th or 7th inning. But if they have any plans on trading him for an upgrade to the rotation, his stock couldn’t be any lower. He’s coming off the worst season of his career and entering his 2nd year of arbitration where he figures to get a bump in salary based on service time. Throw in his spotty health history on top of that, including an aggravation of a 6 year old back injury at the end of this year, and there’s no way Phil could be the centerpiece of a significant deal if the player coming back is any good. Chances are Phil will be back next year, and I for one will be paying close attention to what the beat reporters are saying about his level of conditioning.