It’s hard to believe this, but Phil Hughes will be eligible for free agency just one year from now. It doesn’t really seem possible given how young Hughes is, and how much development he still has left ahead of him, but assuming he plays in the majors for all of 2013, he’ll have a full six years of service time accrued at the end of the year, making him eligible to hit the open market. Unfortunately, that puts him right in the middle of the Yankees’ financial crossroads.
If you asked most people, I wager that they would assume Hughes would absolutely be a part of the Yankees’ austerity plans, but I’m not so sure that’s the case. Hughes really hasn’t been able to establish himself as a consistent r, reliable starter over the course of multiple seasons yet, and the Yankees had something of a stockpile of young pitching behind him. But now, with Manny Banuelos out of the question entirely following Tommy John surgery and Dellin Betances doing his best impression of Andrew Brackman, a 2014 rotation of only players under the Yankees’ control would be C.C. Sabathia, David Phelps, Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda, and Adam Warren. That’s a dicey proposition under even the most optimistic outlooks, and it doesn’t take much to imagine Hughes as the second best starter on that hypothetical team.
The Yankees generally do not negotiate long term contracts with players before they’re eligible for free agency, especially pitchers, and there’s some merit to that approach. For one thing, it minimizes the risk of betting on the performance of young players, putting off making a costly commitment until the last possible moment. For another, the Yankees can certainly afford to take such a strategy, and unlike a lot of small market teams don’t need to entice their playrs into signing long term deals early in their careers. But with a hard cap of $189 million being put in place by ownership, and with a hefty chunk of that number already commited to players like Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, Brian Cashman may need to start acting more like a small market GM, as he has decidedly less wiggle room than he’s used to. Could taking care of Hughes’ contract now while he’s still a year away from free agency be a part of that strategy.
If there’s one thing working in the Yankees’ favor here, it’s the depth of the free agent class Hughes will be competing in. If no one is locked up before next year, Bronson Arroyo, Chris Carpenter, Matt Garza, Jason Hammel, Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Johnson, Tim Lincecum, Ricky Nolasco, and Johan Santana will all be free agents, and Jon Lester and Wandy Rodriguez could join them if their $13 million options are declined (and the buyout on Lester’s option is just $250k). That’s an unusually deep class of pitching these days, and there’s a lot of potential alternatives with higher upsides than Hughes, which could help in preventing him from being overpaid by a contender desperately looking to add pitching, or something like that. Then again, Hughes will be turning just 28 years old in June of 2014, making him at least two years younger than any of those guys. So a good (and healthy) 2013 season could make Hughes one of the most attractive choices on the market, and the Yankees could find themselves in the unthinkable position of having him priced out of their reach.
My guess is that the Yankees won’t break their policy in order to negotiate a long term deal with Hughes this winter, if only because he hasn’t demonstrated that he actually can be a solid starter year in and year out, and because he’s still got a lot of work to do in terms of refining his secondary offerings. I have no idea if they’ll live to regret that decision or not, but if they do go that route they’ll find themselves in a very unusual position for themselves if Hughes turns in a ~3 WAR season.