When the 2008 season began, the New York Yankees were thought to have baseball's best and rarest commodity: young and ascending starting pitching. At the time, the trio of Ian Kennedy, Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain represented 60 percent of future dominant rotations in the Bronx.
Remember when Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy were the next Big 3 for the Yankees? Good times.— Tim Healey (@timbhealey) August 17, 2013
More than six years later, that dream is long gone. Success for the Kennedy-Hughes-Chamberlain trio, however, has finally all come together at the same time. With the specter of the New York spotlight out of the equation, the former Yankee farmhands are succeeding at levels that Yankees brass once hoped would happen in the AL East.
Heading into play on June 10, the San Diego Padres, Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers, respectively, have reaped the rewards of acquiring the Yankees castoffs. As you can see by the numbers, each pitcher is thriving in a new environment.
Let's start with Kennedy. Unlike his former prospect counterparts, the 29-year-old left the big city years ago as part of a three-way trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Detroit Tigers in the aftermath of the 2009 season. While Kennedy experienced breakout success during a magical 2011 season in Arizona, it was fleeting.
By 2013, Kennedy was traded again. This time, the cavernous and pitching-friendly venue of Petco Park acted as a career-saving safety net. While it's clearly easier to pitch in Petco Park than Chase Field or Yankee Stadium, Kennedy deserves credit for the numbers—79.2, 3.39 ERA—that he's posted thus far in 2014.
At first glance, Kennedy's current revival pales in comparison to a (21-4, 2.88 ERA) Cy Young-caliber season for the 2011 Diamondbacks. Yet, when digging deeper, the Padres ace might be pitching better right now.
With a 9.9 SO/9 rate and 2.84 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), Kennedy has trumped his 2011 numbers in two significant categories. With a dominant strikeout rate higher than Masahiro Tanaka's or Felix Hernandez's, the underrated righty is overpowering hitters.
Since arriving to San Diego on last year's July 31 trade deadline, Kennedy owns a 3.74 ERA and 145 strikeouts over 23 starts.
If Kennedy is reprising success from 2011, Phil Hughes can be described as finally reaching the level predicted for him years ago. During the spring of 2006, a 19-year-old Hughes was compared to Roger Clemens after throwing to then-teammate Jason Giambi, per Mark Feinsand of MLB.com.
"That kid is going to be good; he reminds me of Rocket," Giambi said. "He's young, but that fastball, it's late. I don't care what the radar gun says, it seems like it's on top of you. He's got good stuff."
Over the next seven years, Hughes never found that form. Due to a combination of inconsistency and role changes on New York's staff, Hughes walked away from the Yankees last winter with a 56-50, 4.53 ledger in 182 games in pinstripes. While he was far from bad, greatness never emanated from Hughes' right arm in New York.
Now, away from the short porch of right field at Yankee Stadium and immense expectations, Hughes is thriving in Minnesota. Much like Kennedy, this former Yankee prospect is benefiting from an expansive outfield in a new park. By moving to Target Field, Hughes' propensity for allowing fly balls isn't manifesting itself into home runs allowed.
Of course, not all of his early-season dominance can be attributed to simply changing ballparks. When watching Hughes in 2014, it's clear that he's matured on the mound and become a different, more cerebral pitcher.
Prior to 2014, Hughes owned a 2.68 career SO/BB. While far from awful, that number didn't compute with the raw stuff Giambi talked about. Hughes owned swing-and-miss stuff and had good control but couldn't marry the two attributes.
Which former Yankees pitcher will finish with the best career?
Heading into play on June 10, Minnesota's best pitcher owned a 7.88 SO/BB ratio, second in all of baseball to Tampa Bay's David Price.
Finally, there's Chamberlain. After arriving to the big leagues as a high-end, impact reliever for the 2007 Yankees, expectations soared and debate began surrounding his future role. As the Yankees fed into the hysteria by instituting the "Joba Rules" to monitor his workload and injuries piled up, the fall of a prospect occurred.
Blessed with the best natural stuff of the trio, Chamberlain consistently got the least of his talent during seven years in New York. After signing a free-agent contract with the Detroit Tigers last offseason, the 28-year-old has become a key bullpen piece for the AL Central leaders.
Despite a blown save on June 8 against the Boston Red Sox, Chamberlain has experienced success in Detroit during his first season away from New York. With a 2.38 FIP, the hard-throwing righty has trumped David Robertson, Jonathan Papelbon and Trevor Rosenthal in that metric, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required).
Three pitchers, three different careers and stories. Yet, when added together, redemption away from New York has become a theme.
When the Twins came to New York for a series in May, Hughes perfectly summed up the dynamic, per Chad Jennings of The Journal News:
It’s tough to live up to those expectations, I think. People talk about those kind of things and anything less is a failure, and that’s tough sometimes. So I think this was probably a good thing for me, just to go somewhere where I don’t have those things tied to me anymore and I can just be who I am and pitch.
For Hughes, Kennedy and Chamberlain, pitching outside of New York has allowed a once-ballyhooed prospect trio to finally thrive and live up to expectations.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs and ESPN, unless otherwise noted, and valid entering play on June 10. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster projections via MLB Depth Charts.