This Friday — weather permitting that is — I’ll be at New Britain Stadium watching the Rock Cats (Twins minor league affiliate) host the AA Trenton Thunder. As an added bonus, Phil Hughes will be taking the mound for Trenton in his next rehab start. Assuming the game is played and he is still on track to participate, I’ll certainly write up my thoughts on his performance afterwards. In the meantime though, I wanted to take a few moments to discuss what I think the expectations are for Phil at this point, and what they perhaps realistically should be.
For many of us, it’s hard not to have lofty expectations of a home grown kid who’s shown flashes of legitimate potential. That’s why one can certainly bet that there’s a decent portion of Yankees fans who are eagerly anticipating the return of the 2010 first-half-of-the-season Phil Franchise. During that timeframe, he pitched to a 3.65 ERA over 101 innings. Moreover, he was able to post a solid SO/9 ratio (8.1) while holding opposing batters to a modest .239/.291/.377 triple slash. It was this type of production that got many of us believing the Yankees had a top-of-the-rotation caliber arm that we could look forward to watching for years to come (on the cheap no less). In this romanticized version, Hughes’ return would instantly make the rotation substantially more threatening (especially if Colon can return to form as well). Granted that would be two big “Ifs.” On the other hand, given the initial question marks surrounding the rotation this season, this would signal a massive lift for the Yanks that would come at no cost.
Now I suspect there’s an equally large portion of Yankeeland that remembers the not-so-pretty second half of 2010 and the abysmal start to 2011. You know; that ugly period when Phil’s 7-6 record was highlighted by a 4.90 ERA over 75.1 innings pitched, along with a very mediocre 6.6 SO/9 rate — not to mention the fly ball tendencies which helped contribute to some very crooked HR splits. Then there was that aggravating problem regarding the seemingly nonexistent get-the-guy-out-already-third-strike pitch. Even if Hughes’ velocity volatility is no longer a discussion point, has anything else really changed? Does he have that third pitch or can we still expect to see inflated pitch counts by the fifth inning? If he comes back and essentially acts as the pitcher from the second half of last year, the Yankees basically have another back of rotation type of arm which helps to some degree in terms of depth but really inspires very little confidence against offenses with a bit of patience.
So where do we stand; my guess is about as good as yours. I’d imagine though that his performance at the big league stage will reside somewhere in the middle of the two possibilities noted above (assuming he’s actually healthy). He’ll likely be more effective than Ivan Nova, Sergio Garcia, and Brian Gordon, but then again, most pitchers with his pedigree are. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a Cy Young caliber player going forward (or even necessarily a number two type of pitcher) though — at least this season (sorry MJR).
The “Return of the Velocity” title makes for a compelling story but that’s really only half the battle. A true out pitch will still be required, and the reliance he placed upon the cutter earlier this season still needs to be addressed. Honestly, if Hughes were to produce stats comparable to a guy like Edwin Jackson for the remainder of the year (4.47 ERA, 3.21 FIP, 3.37 xFIP, 7.58 SO/9, 3.12 BB/9), I think that would have to be deemed a success – especially given the fact that Jackson is a perfectly viable trade target for the Yanks. Numbers like his are not particularly glamorous, but they are definitely useful. Similarly, it would go a long way in restoring confidence in his abilities going forward. Needless to say, I’m anxiously awaiting his next rehab start.
What do you expect for the remainder of the year from Phil? What do you expect for the long term?
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