Blog Entry

Where have you gone, Phil Hughes?

Posted on: February 15, 2009 5:06 pm

TAMPA, Fla. -- His locker is just a couple down from heavyweights CC Sabathia and Joba Chamberlain in the New York Yankees' spring clubhouse here, yet he comes and goes with barely a notice.

Last spring, right-hander Phil Hughes was one of the most highly touted prospects in baseball.

Now, with an injury practically being the only thing that could knock Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte and Chamberlain from the rotation, Hughes is something else.

An apparition.

"Last spring, Ian (Kennedy) and I had a lot of pressure to step in. It's different this year," said Hughes in what may be as big an understatement as you'll hear all spring. "I look at it as a positive. We have three or four guys in our rotation who would be capable of being in the top of any rotation in baseball.

"Whether I fit into it now or toward the end of the year, I'll try and contribute wherever I'm needed."

Maybe it's better this way. Hughes, still only 22, was catapulted into the limelight last winter when the Yankees decided to follow Boston's lead (Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Jonathan Papelbon) and emphasize its young pitching. Then Hughes became The Next Can't Miss Kid when the Yanks refused to include him in a deal with Minnesota for Johan Santana, who eventually was traded to the New York Mets.

Ultimately, Hughes not only failed to achieve liftoff in 2008, he mostly looked unsure of himself and completely overmatched in going 0-4 with a 6.62 ERA in eight starts before minor-league assignments and a broken rib sidetracked the rest of what was supposed to be his coming-out party.

Instead, he found himself pitching in obscurity in the Arizona Fall League in October as the Yankees were sitting out the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

Meanwhile, Kennedy went 0-4 with an 8.17 ERA and managed to pitch himself further out of New York's plans than did Hughes.

"I thought it was important that they learned from last year," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "That they took something from it, and that they understand what it takes to stay here."

Girardi said that each needs to understand "how to attack the (strike) zone" and locate his fastball.

One of the few openings the club is expected to have probably will be for a long reliever who can double as a spot starter, and Girardi made it clear that while Hughes possibly could fill that void, he would be concerned that it could slow the kid's development. Most likely, the long reliever/spot starter job is what the Yankees brought in guys like Brett Tomko for.

Also, Hughes has suffered a string of injuries, which adds to the evidence of those wondering whether he's star-crossed. In addition to the rib, he's suffered hamstring and ankle injuries in the past two years.

Mostly, the Yankees think that Hughes and Kennedy simply need to pitch, that the more innings they rack up, the more steadily they will develop. However, after sitting out October last year, the difference this year, what with moving into the new stadium in April and signing Sabathia and Burnett, is that the Yanks no longer are willing to allow them to learn on the job.

Hughes thinks he is back on track after fighting his mechanics for most of '08.

"My mechanics ideally should stay the same on every pitch," he said, meaning fastball, curve, whatever the selection. "That happens when I slow things down and get a good balance point."

He never could slow things down in his on-the-job audition with the Yankees in '08.

He says he was able to slow them down in Arizona, and his first bullpen session of the spring went well -- in his estimation -- on Sunday.

"In the past, I was rushing through my balance point," Hughes said. "When I'm deliberate in my delivery, I get a good balance point. And everything comes from that."

Likes: Brian Cashman's honesty. Whatever you think of the Yankees, love 'em or hate 'em, the general manager is a stand-up guy. Answering Alex Rodriguez questions the other day, he said that the organization had to run toward the A-Rod situation, not run away from it. True enough. But I especially chuckled over his assessment of this year's Yankees in Tyler Kepner's piece in Sunday's New York Times: "We are a bad defensive team, so a guy that prevents the ball from being put into play is a good thing for us." He was referring to A.J. Burnett ranking third in strikeouts per nine innings among pitchers who worked 500 or more innings last year, and CC Sabathia ranking seventh. Everybody knows that Yankees aren't exactly overloaded with Gold Glovers -- not with Johnny Damon in the outfield, range-challenged Derek Jeter at shortstop, Robinson Cano at second, etc. But for a GM to come right out and say "we are a bad defensive team" ... priceless.

Sunblock day? Barely. Warm, a little humid, but not much sun on a mis-named Sunday.

Rock 'N' Roll Lyric of the Day:

"Ring the bells that still can ring
"Forget your perfect offering
"There is a crack, a crack in everything
"That's how the light gets in."

-- Leonard Cohen, Anthem


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