Position Battles Resolved: Yankees Choose Phil Hughes, Rays Pick Jeff Niemann

Steven GoldmanMLB Lead BloggerMarch 27, 2012

Phil Hughes: annointed.
Phil Hughes: annointed.Nick Laham/Getty Images

Both the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees made intelligent choices with an eye on the upside when locking up two spots in American League East starting rotations.

According to the Tampa Bay Times' Marc Topkin, Jeff Niemann is Tampa’s fifth starter, with Wade Davis headed to the bullpen. Meanwhile, according to the New York Daily News' Mark Feinsand, a source out of the Yankees’ Tampa camp believes Phil Hughes will beat out Freddy Garcia for the last spot in the rotation.

Hughes, 25, was a disaster last year, handicapped by injury-diminished stuff, but his career as a whole has been a disappointment as well. The 2004 first-round pick has been unable to stay healthy or stick in the rotation. Even in 2010, when he won 18 games, his season split into an effective early portion followed by a great deal of mediocrity (1.38 ERA during his first half-dozen starts, about 5.00 thereafter).

Still, if the stuff is there then the ability that made Hughes one of the top pitching prospects in baseball remains. The Yankees could have an overqualified fifth starter on their hands.

Freddy Garcia will lose this particular battle not by virtue of having pitched poorly, but because he’s 35, pitched over his current level of ability last year and lacks durability. He has never been a reliever before, and you shouldn’t necessarily expect him to be one this year. However, you also shouldn’t expect the Yankees to get much in trade unless some general manager gets inexplicably limerent.

The Rays also made the smart decision in sending Davis to the bullpen. Davis has good stuff but lacks a third pitch, resulting in low (and declining) strikeout rates. His stuff will play up in the pen, the lack of a third pitch will be a mostly moot issue and they may convert a mediocre starter into a real asset.

Niemann, 29, is hardly an ace and has had major issues with durability and consistency in his three years as a starter. It’s not so much that he’s dramatically better than the 26-year-old Davis, but between his edge in results and the benefits of having Davis in a role more suited to his skills, this was the common-sense move for the Rays. They are going to have a superior rotation regardless of the identity of their fifth starter.