Monday, May 25, 2009

The Hughes Dilemma

Phil Hughes didn't want to come out of the game.

He was angry. He had every right to be. He pitched a whale of a game. He even refused to shake Joe Girardi's hand. I love that competitiveness, that fight.

But at the same time, we saw exactly why the Yankees are being so careful with their 22-year-old righthander, trying to avoid the same fate that has fallen so other young phenoms, such as Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.

Hughes allowed three hits over eight shutout innings and Alex Rodriguez went 5-for-5 to lead a 19-hit attack as the Yankees blasted the Rangers 11-1 at Arlington, Texas, Monday. In the process, Hughes is forcing the Yankees to make a tough decision -- a situation they were hoping to find themselves in when they called up Hughes.

Hughes was coming off a much improved outing in which he struck out nine, but allowed three runs on two homers over five innings.

Monday was a major step forward.

He commanded his lively fastball, topping out at 93 mph, and effectively mixed in his big curveball, slider and cutter. He threw 65 of 101 pitches for strikes, walking one and striking out six.

And we watched him grow up before our eyes in the second inning -- and he did it against one of the top offenses in the game.

The Yankees had a 2-0 lead, when Hughes found himself in a jam.

Nelson Cruz led off with a double, Hank Blalock was hit by a pitch, Hughes fell behind Marlon Byrd 3-and-0 and game was at a crossroads. One mistake and the Rangers would seize control.

But after a visit from pitching coach Dave Eiland, Hughes went to work, overpowering Byrd with a cutter and two fastballs for a strikeout. Chris Davis and Taylor Teagarden also followed with strikeouts and just like that, Hughes was in command.

The Rangers got only three more men on base against Hughes the rest of the way and never threatened. Meanwhile the Yankees' offense poured it on, allowing Hughes to attack hitters and cruise.

Rodriguez led an onslaught that did not launch a homer, but was nonetheless devastating. The Yankees went 9-for-20 with runners in scoring position, stranding 10. A-Rod had two doubles, four RBI and raised his average to .259.

Mark Teixeira went 2-for-3 with two RBI and has his average up to .273 and the slumping Nick Swisher went 1-for-4, but had three RBI.

It was a great way to open a seven-game trip, but now the Yankees have to figure out what to do with their rotation. Hughes is maturing and developing as a major league pitcher, but Chien-Ming Wang is back and is expected to start Friday.

Meanwhile, the Yankees placed Brian Bruney back on the DL because of his elbow and are sending him to see Dr. James Andrews. They called up David Robertson to take Bruney's spot on the roster.

That leaves the Yankees with six starters and a bullpen that is once again suspect. So what should the Yankees do?

After his last start, I thought Hughes should stay in the majors and pitch out of the bullpen, but after what I saw Monday, I think Hughes needs to stay in the rotation. One game does not make a season or a career, but Hughes deserves a longer shot to prove he can pitch like this consistently.

Wang, however, has improved from his disastrous start to the season, but is not quite all the way back. He is healthier and throwing with more velocity, but his release point is still off and his pitches aren't diving consistently.

I think the plan -- for now -- should be for Wang to work out of the bullpen as the long man. Get him straighten out in this role before committing to trotting him out every fifth-day. Eventually, both Joba Chamberlain and Hughes are going to run up against their innings limits and Wang will regain his spot in the rotation, but in the meantime, there is no need to force him in there.

As for the bullpen, the seventh- and eighth-inning roles should be split between Phil Coke and Alfredo Aceves. Both are young and inexperienced, but aside from Bruney, they have been the most effective guys leading up to Mariano Rivera. Jose Veras has been better of late, but it's impossible to trust him.

It's a tough decision Brian Cashman and Girardi are facing, but at least there are options and hope that the Yankees will be able to cover up that sizable hole in the bullpen for the short-term.

In Case You Haven't Noticed...
The AL East is shaping up to be a two-team race: Yankees and Red Sox ... again. The Blue Jays have come crashing back to earth and are now in third, a half-game behind the Yankees and 1-1/2 behind the Sox. Expect that freefall to continue. They just aren't that good.

Meanwhile, the Rays are being decimated by the injuries they managed to avoid last season.

Akinori Iwamura, Scott Kazmir and Troy Percival are all on the DL. The Rays called up top prospect David Price to replace Kazmir. He made his season debut Monday, allowing two runs on four hits and five walks in 3-1/3 innings. He struck out six, but threw 100 pitches. The question that Rays are facing is whether they are better off having Price replace Percival instead of Kazmir.

The Rays had built a 10-0 lead against the Indians, but lost 11-10, allowing seven runs in the ninth. Their suspect bullpen is in worse shape than the Yankees'. They have Jason Insringhausen, but it does not appear he has closer stuff anymore. Price, however, was impressive coming out of the bullpen last year in the playoffs, closing out several games.

It's a question the Rays are going to have to figure out quickly before their season goes up in flames.

Runners In Scoring Position
9-for-20 (.450)
113-for-404 (.280)

Up Next
Tuesday at Rangers, 8:05 p.m., Local TV (check your listings)
Chamberlain (2-1, 3.70 ERA) vs. Kevin Millwood (4-4, 3.12)

Joba is coming off an abbreviated outing, leaving after two-thirds of an inning after being struck on the knee with a shot back through the box. The first concern is that Joba is 100 percent healthy. Then the focus is on delivering a strong outing of at least seven innings.


Anonymous said...

Nice recap of current Yankee matters. You should be writing for the NY Times!

Aviv said...

Wow. That's a tremendous compliment. Thank you so much.