Phil Hughes: 5 Reasons His Healthy Return Makes Yankees AL East Front Runner

Chris Tripodi@christripodiContributor IIIJune 21, 2011

Phil Hughes: 5 Reasons His Healthy Return Makes Yankees AL East Front Runner

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    If Phil Hughes can return at the level of his 2010 first half, the Yankees will be in great shape.
    If Phil Hughes can return at the level of his 2010 first half, the Yankees will be in great shape.Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    After two months of recovery from dead arm, Yankees starting pitcher Phil Hughes pitched his first rehab start at Single-A on Sunday. His impending return could not have come at a better time for New York, as it sits 1.5 games behind the Red Sox for the AL East lead.

    The Yankees staff has performed admirably since Hughes' injury, with all five starters holding an ERA below 4.15. That includes spring training experiments Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, who have combined for 10 wins, while each has an ERA below 3.65.

    A.J. Burnett and Ivan Nova have seven wins each, but both have had their share of inconsistencies. The return of Hughes to the rotation will make the Yankees better in a number of ways.

Their Rotation Will Be Even Deeper

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    New York will likely throw Freddy Garcia into a long-relief role when Phil Hughes returns and his availability for spot-start duty will be clutch for the Yankees down the stretch.
    New York will likely throw Freddy Garcia into a long-relief role when Phil Hughes returns and his availability for spot-start duty will be clutch for the Yankees down the stretch.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    While Josh Beckett has been outstanding for Boston this season, the one thing the Red Sox lack in their starting rotation is depth. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are legitimate options, without a doubt, but their fourth and fifth starters leave much to be desired.

    John Lackey has an ERA of 7.02 in 59 innings and has allowed more earned runs (46) than he has strikeouts (34).

    Daisuke Matsuzaka, with his 5.30 ERA, is still dealing with elbow issues, and Tim Wakefield is, well, Tim Wakefield.

    The Red Sox even called on former 2006 Tigers first-round pick Andrew Miller to start Monday. Miller allowed 10 baserunners and three earned runs in 5.2 innings against the hapless Padres.

    If Hughes returns healthy and effective, the Yankees will have six starters they can comfortably throw into their rotation. Boston has only three pitchers it can count on. In the regular season, you start five pitchers. Advantage: New York.

New York's Lineup Is Just as Formidable as Boston's

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    Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson have combined for 42 home runs this season, the most of any duo in baseball.
    Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson have combined for 42 home runs this season, the most of any duo in baseball.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Boston may lead the league in runs scored, batting average and on-base percentage, but New York is second in runs and on-base percentage. The Yankees also lead the league in slugging percentage, while Boston sits second.

    Both lineups are lethal. The Yankees boast five players with at least nine home runs and have 105 as a team, while the Red Sox have just three players with nine home runs and have hit 84 total. But Boston has three players hitting over .300, while the Yankees have none higher than .295.

    The Red Sox are hitting .277 this season, while the Yankees are at just .261. Many have said New York is too reliant on the long ball, which will only hurt them against better pitching in the postseason. But we're talking about winning the AL East right now, not the World Series.

A.J. Burnett Can Slide Down in the Rotation

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    A.J. Burnett has seen a resurgence of sorts in 2011, but he shouldn't have to be New York's best pitcher behind C.C. Sabathia.
    A.J. Burnett has seen a resurgence of sorts in 2011, but he shouldn't have to be New York's best pitcher behind C.C. Sabathia.David Banks/Getty Images

    By now, everybody realizes that the Yankees spent way too much money on A.J. Burnett. Burnett is in the third year of a five-year, $85 million deal that I said at the time was absurd, before even seeing what he had to offer.

    Burnett has the kind of arsenal that would make him the ace of many staffs if he could only harness his control. But at age 34, it's hard to expect him to improve his walk rate, which is over four per nine innings.

    Burnett has bounced back nicely from a disastrous 2010, going 7-5 with a 4.05 ERA and holding opponents to a .222 batting average. While he isn't living up to his contract, Yankees fans can take solace in the fact that John Lackey is making the same amount of money over the same number of years. You saw his ERA in the first slide; it's not pretty.

    Burnett is definitely not a No. 2 starter on a championship-caliber team, which the Yankees always have aspirations to be. But with a healthy Hughes to be the second starter, Burnett can slide comfortably into better matchups against third starters, particularly in the playoffs. It's hard to deny he's at least a league-average No. 3.

Hughes Has All-Star Potential

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    An All-Star last season, Phil Hughes has the potential to be New York's right-handed version of C.C. Sabathia.
    An All-Star last season, Phil Hughes has the potential to be New York's right-handed version of C.C. Sabathia.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Hughes' struggles at the end of last season and in his three starts this season show how quickly people forget: The 24-year-old was an All-Star last season.

    Hughes went 11-2 in the season's first half with an AL East-respectable 3.65 ERA, a 91:29 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a WHIP under 1.20. Naysayers will say he got great run support, which he did, but he pitched like the stud the Yankees expected him to be when they refused to include him in a trade for Johan Santana a few years ago.

    If Hughes can return at full strength and maintain his fastball velocity in the low to mid 90s, he should recapture most, if not all, of the form he showed in the first half of 2010—which would make him New York's second-best starter.

His Fastball Is Back

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    If Phil Hughes can regain his fastball velocity, the AL East better watch out.
    If Phil Hughes can regain his fastball velocity, the AL East better watch out.Nick Laham/Getty Images

    Hughes only averaged 89.3 miles per hour in his three starts this season, which led to a DL stint for dead arm. After all, a young right-handed pitcher with a straight four-seam fastball needs to hit at least 90 on the radar gun to be effective, which Hughes was not in early April.

    The good news for the Yankees is that Hughes hit 95 on the gun early in his first rehab start. The bad news is that he's far from ready to take that fastball deep into games, as he was topping out at just 92 miles per hour by the fourth and fifth innings. His average velocity during his breakout 2010 campaign was 92.6.

    New York will look to give Hughes three to five more rehab starts, and all signs point towards a return around the All-Star break. Expect to see more consistent velocity deeper in games as his rehab continues, and if all goes well, the Yankees will have their young stud back at full strength for a playoff run.