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Yesterday, Matt argued that should he lose the battle for the 5th starter spot to Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes should be sent to Triple-A to start and build innings, instead of throwing out of the major league bullpen. I believe very strongly that Matt is wrong, and that the loser of the Joba/Phil battle should not be in Triple-A.

Phil Hughes is one hell of a pitcher. He was a top prospect, he played an important part in a World Series team, and is still only going to be 24 years old in 2010. He was arguably the Yankees best reliever last season. However, starters are more valuable than relievers. An ideal world would allow both Phil and Joba to start, keeping them at maximum value. However, we don’t live in an ideal world: the Yankees weren’t comfortable allowing them both to start, so they went out and traded for Javier Vazquez. I think that this move reveals to us a few points about Phil that the Yankees seem to be aware of.

He’s had starting issues. I’ve been following Phil Hughes since he was drafted, and blogging about him since soon after. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard about the Yankees plans to help Phil develop a third pitch. In 2006, they had an elaborate scheme set up to teach him a changeup. It didn’t work. They tried bringing back his slider, but he didn’t have the feel for it that he has for a curveball. Before this season, they gave him a cutter. It worked fine, but didn’t function as a third pitch. I’m waiting for someone to suggest that he throws a screwball. Phil Hughes has had tremendous difficulty developing a third pitch that he has the command, control, and confidence to throw. To put some numbers to it: Phil has a 5.22 ERA as a starter in 22 starts over 3 seasons. While not a huge sample, its obvious that he has consistently struggled.

Phil Hughes could theoretically become A.J. Burnett, who functions off just a fastball and a curveball. His curve is certainly very good. But Phil doesn’t have the fastball that Burnett does, and he has had trouble walking people when they lay off the curve. The formula as a starter was pretty standard: Phil loses some control, batters stop hitting curve, Phil can only get strikes off the fastball, and then a batter hits a 500 foot home run. Phil definitely has the talent to potentially overcome these issues, but there still remains a high degree of uncertainty.

This is different from the Joba Chamberlain debate. We know that Joba Chamberlain can start and pitch very well – his 2008 run as a starter was just as dominant as his time in relief, and his pre-debut starting record in the minor leagues in 2007 was just as dominant as his time in the bullpen. Stupid writers at the New York Post think that Joba becomes a superhero only out of the bullpen, but we know better. He’s got four good pitches, good command when he’s on his game, and plenty of velocity. Joba was out of sync (both starting and in the bullpen) in 2009, but he has a chance to change that.

Matt knows that Hughes would be a very positive addition to the 2010 Yankees. He’s not arguing that he’s not. But he is arguing that the Yankees should roll the dice to see if Phil Hughes can learn how to leverage his pitching skills as a starter. This makes a lot of sense when you’re talking about a 21 year old phenom who just entered the majors. But Hughes is about to enter his 4th major league season. There is a point where you can’t learn any more, or at least that learning has diminishing returns. We know that Hughes has the skills to be a very good relief pitcher.

He’d be useful as a depth starter. Strongly disagree. Yes, Phil Hughes would be a better 6th starter than Chad Gaudin. Still, Chad Gaudin isn’t too bad, and neither are Zach McAllister and Ivan Nova. The Yankees have pretty good pitching depth at the upper levels (and pretty healthy pitchers in the majors), and don’t need to further stock the surplus. Furthermore, as Matt points out, the Yankees still have the option of stretching Hughes out and doing a Joba if they need a starter for more than just a few spot outings.

His value in those few outings is much less than his value in 70-80 leveraged innings. With the Red Sox rearmed and the 2009 Yankees relying on some outlying performances, the team needs every win that they can get during the regular season.

Hughes is ready to contribute, so he should. A conversion to starting can take place at a later time in his career – look at Adam Wainwright. But the Yankees can’t afford to sit back and hold on to their cards. Its important to remember that Phil Hughes is not Joba Chamberlain, and the same arguments absolutely do not apply. Mariano Rivera was a starting pitcher when he came up. The Yankees realized that he didn’t have the skills to pitch 6 inning games. So they converted him to the bullpen, and the rest of history. I’d love to have seen Mo learn a curveball and go all Pedro Martinez on the league, but that wasn’t going to happen. If the Yankees aren’t ready to commit to Phil being a MLB starter the beginning of the season, they shouldn’t take a key piece out of their roster to nurture the faint hope that one day he might be.

20 Responses to “Response to Matt: Hughes Should Not Go To Scranton”

  1. Just to point out, yesterday I wasn’t saying that the Yankees necessarily should be going with a 6 man rotation. Just that it makes more sense to use Hughes in that role than as a minor leaguer – which to me isn’t realistic at all.  (Quote)

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    Jay Reply:

    Yeah, and people kind of unfairly jumped on you. Now, I totally disagree with you, but I hate when people just say things like, “NO WAY. You are WRONG,” because none of us know how this will play out. That said, cutting out 6 starts of Sabathia, 6 starts of Burnett and 6 starts of Javier Vasquez (162 games a year, in a 5 man rotation gets you 32.4 starts. 162 with a 6 man gets you 27) just to get Hughes his starts is counterproductive, as there is a legit chance that the Yankees miss the playoffs while Hughes takes his lumps.

    So I was unhappy with the way people tried to make you look stupid yesterday, but I do think this needs to be thoroughly thought through.  (Quote)

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    Rob A from BBD Reply:

    You are right, I don’t think a 6 man rotation is realistic either. I hope they just figure out a way for him to get at least 100 innings without burning him out. I’d prefer more innings, but I think if they got at least that he could still step into the rotation in 2011.  (Quote)

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    Matt Imbrogno Reply:

    I think someone will try out a four man rotation (again) before someone tries out a six man rotation.  (Quote)

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  2. In a perfect world he should go to AAA and learn a #3 offering but, if they don’t think he can learn another pitch…he goes to the BP, for life.
    A cutter is a bad pitch to have if one wants to throw a change-up, so have him go with FB, curve and change-up. A change-up is an easy pitch to learn…harder to refine. With a curve ball, he needs something to run the other way. If (and a big if) he can somehow learn it well enough to use it in a game (with confidence) it should offset his strait FB  (Quote)

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    Basil Fomeen Reply:

    Yes… classic catch-22. The majors is no place to develop a 3rd pitch. And he is no guarantee to develop that pitch in the minors!

    All I know is he is only 23 years old, and as I look at other teams “can’t miss” prospects lists, many of these so-called prospects are right around Phil’s age. So maybe going to Scranton isn’t as far fetched or ridiculous as it sounds.  (Quote)

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  3. I agree EJ. That said, I would have much rather seen them deal him for a young star left fielder (like a Nelson Cruz, someone who isn’t on Matt Kemp level, but has talent. Kind of like Hughes) then stick him in the pen. He could be dominant there, and will develop into a future closer. They could have dealt him and signed a good bullpen guy (or gotten one via trade. Or just let David Robertson step in, as he’s going to be a star). I just really worry that what was once a top minor league prospect, the luster has rubbed off. There is nothing wrong with a great bullpen guy, and a future closer. However, it just sucks that he was once called a “future ace,” and now he is a bullpen guy.

    ****This is exactly why I am against dealing Montero for a young pitcher. There are just too many “misses” that are supposed to be “a future ace.”*****  (Quote)

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    EJ Fagan Reply:

    I would have less problem trading Phil Hughes if there isn’t a spot for him in the rotation. I’m not too sure what other clubs perceive his value as nowadays though.  (Quote)

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  4. I can’t buy the argument that at 24 years old and as talented as Phil Hughes is he can’t learn another pitch or the Yankee organization can’t teach him one. Because Hughes has only 2 plus pitches now argues even more that he belongs in Scranton to start 2010 so that he can continue learning an effective third pitch. There might come a time when Hughes proves not to have the repertoire to be a major league starter, but his success in the minors and at times against big leaguers suggests that time is still years in the future.

    The argument about starter depth also cuts both ways. If you argue that as a 6th starter Hughes is only slightly better than Gaudin/Z-Mac/Nova, it can also be argued that the Yankee reliever depth makes a bullpen without Hughes only slightly worse than one with him.

    So I agree with Matt – start Hughes in AAA and have him work on a 3rd pitch and getting through lineups multiple times. If a starter injury happens he can fill in, if not he can be transitioned to the mlb bullpen when he nears his innings limit in time to help for the stretch run and playoffs.  (Quote)

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    Jay Reply:

    The thing that should be remembered is that some players just cannot throw another plus pitch. Someone can LEARN a pitch easily. However, to be able to successfully throw one past MLB hitters is a different story. Truth be told, Hughes is blessed to throw those two pitches. If it was as easy as having talent, Mo would never have never become a closer. This is why the Yankees need to have the front office guys know what the optimal value is. We as fans don’t need to know what the plan is, but if they know he will be at best a number three, and they could deal him as a one, they should have done it. To simply say he is gifted though doesn’t ensure success. If it was that easy, he would have learned it already.  (Quote)

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    NDR Reply:

    The fact that he is gifted doesn’t ensure success – I never said it did. The fact that he has had great success as a starting pitcher in the minors and at times in the majors tells me they should not give up on him yet as a starting pitcher. Also, realize that his success out of the bullpen while perhaps more likely is also not assured. The main point is a good starter is much more valuable than a good reliever and I believe Hughes should be given every chance to succeed as a starter first. I think letting him start the year in AAA would be the best way to get him the innings he needs without hurting our already very talented team too much.  (Quote)

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    Jay Reply:

    I think you must have never read my postings on here over the past couple of months (I am relatively new). I am all for Hughes starting, and because he won’t be starting here this season, and his innings limits will be low, and you can’t keep bouncing him back and forth, I advocated for keeping either Joba or Hughes and dealing the other for a left fielder (I thought a Nelson Cruz). In theory, a deal would be like a Volquez/Hamilton trade, two guys with legit futures that are cheap and have some questions.

    My post was replying to this statement: “I can’t buy the argument that at 24 years old and as talented as Phil Hughes is he can’t learn another pitch or the Yankee organization can’t teach him one. Because Hughes has only 2 plus pitches now argues even more that he belongs in Scranton to start 2010 so that he can continue learning an effective third pitch. There might come a time when Hughes proves not to have the repertoire to be a major league starter, but his success in the minors and at times against big leaguers suggests that time is still years in the future.” In one breath you are saying that a player as talented as Hughes you cannot “buy the argument” that he can’t learn a new pitch. He isn’t new to the organization. He has had the full run up the minors. The next breath you are saying, “The fact that he is gifted doesn’t ensure success – I never said it did.” You seem to be contradicting yourself tremendously, so I would love to know what I am missing, because I think in a way I actually agree with your feelings (starters should prove they cannot start before going to the pen), but I wanted to make sure.

    I will say again though… sometimes you only have so much talent. Rivera can throw one pitch better then most. Some can throw four. Some two. Just find out where he fits, and get him there. The clock is running on arbitration… pretty soon he’s going to be an expensive guy without a spot; too good for pen, not stretched/too stunted for rotation. Mariano Rivera showed that he COULD NOT learn more pitches and develop plus pitches with it. Hughes is blessed with talent, but maybe the blessing runs out after the first two pitches that he throws.  (Quote)

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    NDR Reply:

    I should have expressed myself more clearly. I think it is possible that the Yankees will not be able to teach Hughes an effective 3rd pitch which might mean he ends up in the bullpen. I just think it is premature to say he won’t. Also the potential benefits of keeping him on a starter track are greater. As a responded to EJ below I wouldn’t go crazy if they started him in the bullpen this season – I would just prefer he was used for multiple innings instead of as a one inning setup man.  (Quote)

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  5. EJ,

    Great post. Exactly my feeling about Hughes. I think that he is very valuable in the pen and can increasingly spell Rivera. I have not seen the ability as a MLB starter. When he starts, his fastball sits at 90-91. He is not Burnett. However, Joba has to rebound from the velocity woes or he is going to struggle. He was crap 1/3 of his starts, average 1/3 and dominant 1/3. Consistency is needed.  (Quote)

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    Jay Reply:

    I disagree. Joba can be effective pitching with lower velocity. However, when you are grading his season last year, he had been great his first 100 innings for someone with such inexperience. It’s unfair to judge him in his innings after 100 as those were exceeding his previous career high by a substantial number, and was being used as a learning process. Joba is young and is still learning. Look at other young pitchers in their careers as they climbed the inning marks. By next year, people will have completely forgotten about Joba’s “velocity issues” I believe.  (Quote)

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  6. So NDR, I used to agree with you that Phil Hughes just had to have the skills to learn a passable changeup. Here is what I wrote in 2006:

    “When Hughes made the decision to not throw his plus slider and instead focus all of his breaking effort on the curveball, it quickly became clear that he would need a 3rd pitch. Enter the changeup. He throws a 78-79 mph changeup fairly well, although it is not as developed as his other pitches. That will change. The Yankees put him on a constant diet of changeups throughout the 2006 season, forcing him to throw it as often as his curveball. It worked. He is still a step away from throwing the changeup in any situation (he goes to his curve with men on), but he is getting a better feel for it. Hughes would benefit from a few innings in AAA to finally nail it down without the big league pressure on him. Right now it will sometimes make hitters look foolish or sometimes fall way out of the strike zone. If Hughes’ track record is at all predictive, expect him to throw it as well as he does his fastball.”

    That’s basically exactly what you said – “He’s so good, he’ll learn it.” The problem is that the Yankees have been trying to get him to throw the pitch for years now, and he’s just not very good at it.  (Quote)

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    NDR Reply:

    EJ, Thanks for the reply and you may well be right that Hughes will not learn a plus 3rd pitch and end up in the bullpen. It is just my opinion that it is still possible for something to click with him as he has not had the benefit of as many minor league innings as most established major league pitchers. If he ends up in the bullpen to start the year I wouldn’t be too worked up, but I would prefer he work in longer stints of 3 innings or so instead of the 8th inning setup man. This way he could build up his innings a little more to keep him as a viable option if someone gets hurt in 2010 or to start the season in 2011 if he makes the adjustments he needs.  (Quote)

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    EJ Fagan Reply:

    I don’t think that we disagree at all then. I wish MLB managers would use more relievers in long stints. Through careful monitoring, the Yankees got a lot of their minor league relievers to throw 2-3 innings per appearance, and would have thrown 85-90 total over a full major league season. That’s pretty impressive to me.  (Quote)

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  7. Great piece EJ. You make your case extremely well.  (Quote)

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  8. Hughes’s offerings can be improved as a starter. The man has only started 28 ML games. We’re all aware the impact Hughes brings as a reliever/ 8th inning bridge, but that’s a secondary consideration weighed against the promise that Hughes has the talent to become an effective starter on a championship contender. Hughes has compiled uber-impressive minor league numbers as a starter.

    Ej touches upon the need to extract value from Hughes now, but i’m squarely in the camp that Hughes AND the Yankees organization would be better served if Hughes was allowed a 100+ inning Scranton campaign. At the end of these 100+ innings, Hughes can return to the bigs and serve as a reliever for the home stretch. Damaso Marte and Robertson are capable late inning relievers. There are a bevy of power arms capable of contributing very soon (R. Sanchez, Whelan), and lets not forget this thing called the trading deadline.  (Quote)

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