At the end of his sixth major league season, the Yankees are nearing a crossroads with right-handed starter Phil Hughes. The once top prospect in their organization is now somewhat of an enigma, a mix of potent talent and frustrating inconsistency.
With the 26-year-old hurler just a year away from free agency, GM Brian Cashman and the New York front office must decide whether to commit to Hughes long term or to begin searching elsewhere for their future pitching needs.
The Yankees have three basic options on how to proceed with Hughes, who is represented by Nez Balelo of CAA Sports. They can offer him arbitration and bring him back for his final year before free agency at a reasonable price, which would likely sit below $10 million. They can also trade him for a descent return based on the value he built during a respectable 2012 campaign.
Another alternative is to sign him to a multi-year contract, foregoing his first few years of free agency on what could be a team-friendly deal if all goes well. The cost of a long-term extension for Hughes would likely be around five years and $65 million, similar to the deal signed by White Sox lefty Jon Danks last offseason.
While that price tag may seem hefty for a pitcher who’s had just two successful seasons as a starter, it’s considerably less than what he’d be offered on the open market if he’s able to produce a career year in 2013.
Drafted 23rd overall in 2004 by the Yankees, it didn’t take long for Hughes, a Mission Viejo, CA native, to make mince meat of the minors. He posted a 2.19 ERA in 2005, splitting his season between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa, and a 2.16 mark in 2006, divided between Tampa and AA Trenton.
In 2007, Baseball America ranked Hughes the fourth-best prospect in the minors and the top overall pitcher. Along with 2006 draftees Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain, Hughes represented a bright future for Yankees pitching. With Chamberlain now relegated to middle relief and Kennedy in Arizona, Hughes represents the Yankees' last opportunity to salvage a long-term starting solution from their once promising trio.
To this point, a roller coaster serves as a perfect metaphor for Phil Hughes’ young career. After debuting in late April of 2007, Hughes threw 6.1 no-hit innings vs. the Rangers in Texas in just his second major league start. His night ended when he pulled a hamstring and spent the ensuing three months on the disabled list and in minor league rehab games.
He reemerged in August and pitched decently enough, posting a 4.46 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP in 13 starts on the season.
If 2007 was a moderate success for Hughes, though, 2008 was a dismal failure. He made six uninspiring starts in April, posting a 9.00 ERA and making it out of the fifth inning just twice. He again spent the bulk of the season on the DL battling a broken rib, velocity issues and vision problems.
In 2009, Hughes replaced a struggling Chien-Ming Wang in the rotation in late April, and pitched poorly until he was shuffled back in the bullpen upon Wang's return. There he dominated hitters with improved control and a devastating curve. Hughes put up a 1.40 ERA and a 0.85 WHIP in 51.1 relief innings as he helped the Yankees to their first championship in nine years.
Unlike in the case of Joba Chamberlain, the club believed in Hughes as a starter and they returned him to the rotation in 2010. The decision paid immediate dividends, as Hughes made 29 starts and won 18 games to go along with a solid 4.19 ERA and 1.24 WHIP.
Seemingly on his way to becoming the front-line major league starter he was expected to be, Hughes suffered another setback in 2011. Injured and ineffective, he made just 14 starts, posting a 5.79 ERA, a 1.48 WHIP and a career-worst 5.7 strikeouts per nine innings.
Flash forward to 2012, when Hughes’ performance was difficult to quantify. He was terrible in April, better in May, excellent from June through August and questionable again in September. He made significant strides on the health front, throwing a career-high 191.1 innings over a career-high 32 starts and striking out 7.8 hitters per nine innings (his best total as a starter). His 4.23 overall ERA and his 1.26 WHIP were similar to his quality 2010 numbers, but he also gave up 35 home runs, the second most in the American League.
While he’s still very much an open book with an uncertain conclusion, the Yankees would be best served to make a commitment to Phil Hughes this coming offseason. Because of the immense hype that surrounded him as he ascended through the minors, fans and media members are often inclined to label Hughes a disappointment.
New York prospects are often met with a superstar-or-bust mentality, which Hughes has had to contend with throughout his career. But in the real world, there’s nothing wrong with just being good.
It’s easy to forget that Phil Hughes is just 26 years old. Though he may never be the mega-ace that scouts and pundits once salivated over, Hughes has been a quality, middle-rotation starter for two of the last three seasons and there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
The Yankees owe it to themselves to sign Hughes and to make the most of his coming prime years.
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