It’s enough to make you laugh, in retrospect, but only so you don’t cry. Though Hughes continued posting good numbers in the minor leagues, it has yet to translate to the major league level. To be sure, that’s not all his fault. He was probably brought up too quickly in 2007, got hurt in 2008, and then was shifted to the bullpen when he struggled in the big league rotation in 2009. Though he was a valuable piece to that World Series winning team, his repertoire has suffered, with his secondary pitches being virtually non-existent. His changeup never developed, his once impressive slider vanished entirely, and his curveball has been sporadic. The only secondary pitch Hughes seems comfortable with these days is a cutter that frankly hasn’t been all that impressive outside of the first month or so he was throwing it. In addition, the relief role limited his workload in 2009, but Hughes was still a full time starter the next season and made three playoff starts thanks to a deep run into the ALCS. All told Hughes threw over 80 innings more in 2010 than he did in 2009, a fact that almost certainly had more than a little to do with the inflamed shoulder that Hughes lost his 2011 season to.
Come back to the present day, and the Yankees again have a couple of much ballyhooed pitching prospects in Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances. To hear some tell it, you’d think it was only a matter of counting down the days until they become the second-coming of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling circa 2001. And yet, they both have plenty of warts, particularly Betances who has a serious arm injury in his history and has walked the world at every level of the minors save for a reasonably 3.6 BB/9 in the 115.1 innings he pitched in High-A. In Banuelos’ case, he’s merely 20 years old with a lot of growing to do, and his peripherals have worsened as he’s been exposed to better competition in the high minors. That’s not to say he’s a lost cause by any means, he’s only 20 after all, but he’s certainly going to have to improve from the 1.76 K/BB mark he posted between Double-A and Triple-A last season before meriting serious consideration for a spot in the big leagues.
And you know what? Neither Banuelos nor Betances have been nearly as acclaimed as Phil Hughes was as a 21 year old, which should paint a rather stark picture of how quickly the luster can come off of a future stud pitcher.
Now not all prospects are created equally, of course, and some seem to be much better bets to succeed than others. Jesus Montero, for example, hit very well at every level of the minor leagues despite being one of the youngest players at each level as he progressed, and when he did struggle early in 2011 his minor league coaches defended him by essentially saying he was simply too good to be playing there anymore. Sure enough Montero didn’t miss a step when he was finally called up in September (though you don’t want to draw too many conclusions from a September call up, you can’t fake the level of comfort and professionalism Montero showed in his big league at bats), and he figures to slot into the Opening Day lineup this year as a designated hitter that just about everyone agrees has tremendous upside with the bat. It’s hard to fault the Yankees for being reluctant to move Montero for anyone short of an elite talent like Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay.
But short of that, the Yankees really don’t have any high ceiling, big league ready prospects. Their high ceiling talents are all probably a year or more away from being ready for the majors, and the Austin Romines and Adam Warrens in the system project as being relatively low ceiling big leaguers. Is there anyone short of Montero who should be considered remotely untouchable? Absolutely not, and that includes Banuelos.
That’s not to say I think Banuelos should be traded for anyone, but if a deal could be swung for a highly talented young big leaguer with multiple cost controlled years remaining and Banuelos was the main piece the Yankees were sending back to the other club, there would be a pretty high likelihood of the Yankees getting the better end of that deal. One thing we’ve seen this winter is that teams put a high value on guys like Mat Latos and Gio Gonzalez, as they should. Brian Cashman can bemoan the high prices of pitching on the market, but there’s nothing particularly strange about this. Mat Latos is a 24 year old pitcher (he’s actually only a few months older than Betances) who’s shown he can put up top of the rotation numbers at the big league level and is four years away from even being eligible for free agency. Manny Banuelos is a lottery ticket. Maybe he’s the second coming of Tom Glavine, or maybe the walk rate never comes down. Maybe his 21 year old shoulder blows out and he never throws a pitch in the big leagues. You tell me which asset you’d honestly rather have on your ledger.
Now to be fair to Cashman, I don’t necessarily think “sources” are being fully forthright when they talk about the way the Yankees’ front office views these prospects, and I think that if Cashman could have had Latos for, say, Banuelos, Betances, Mason Williams, and Adam Warren he would have made that move in a heartbeat. Rather I suspect that other teams simply aren’t interested in trading that type of asset to the Yankees without getting Montero in exchange (not Latos specifically per se), a fact that understandably makes the trade much less attractive from the Yankees’ standpoint.
This is why I think fans who are hoping Cashman has some super-secret awesome trade in the works to shore up the rotation or will make the blockbuster deal that never came in 2011. While the Yankees have a good farm system on their own terms, that farm system lacks obviously attractive trade candidates once you get past Montero, and the Yankees are very reluctant to give away a rookie with that kind of offensive potential when they have a place in the lineup available for him. Other teams see the warts on the Yankees’ prospects. You always see the other guys’ warts.
Just like the backup quarterback.