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Considering the future of Phil Hughes

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Monday was New Years Eve, yesterday was New Years Day, and today is a random Wednesday in the middle of baseball’s offseason. That’s why I’ll probably use today to fully catch up on some of the reading I missed during last week’s vacation.

The process started last night with this piece from Joel Sherman, [3] who examined the curious case of Phil Hughes. The basic idea of Sherman’s story was this sentence:

… to be among the best in the majors and provide greater protection against the fragility atop the rotation and the regression of the offense, the Yankees need this irony: Phil Hughes to pitch so well in 2013 that he prices himself off the team in 2014.

As he always does, Sherman makes a strong and interesting point. And even if I’m not entirely sure I agree with his conclusion, his basic point is hard to argue.

If Hughes pitches well this season — which Sherman speculates might be easier to do given the Yankees improved outfield defense — Hughes could enter the free agent market having set his value somewhere between what Edwin Jackson (four years, $52 million) and Anibal Sanchez (six years, $80 million) made this offseason. Regardless of whether you agree on the exact dollar figure, Hughes will be just 27 years old, and young starting pitchers don’t reach the open market very often these days, so he’s going to have considerable value.

[4]Question is, will the Yankees be able to afford him. Sherman’s not so sure. I think they’ll have little choice but to pay him.

As Brian Cashman showed with last winter’s Jesus Montero trade — and with his first moves this offseason — pitching is the priority. The Yankees might be better known for their bats, but their general manager prefers pitching, and the Yankees are going to need pitching next winter. CC Sabathia will be in place, but it seems reasonable to think Andy Pettitte will be ready to retire again, and Hiroki Kuroda can fill a hole for only so long. Manny Banuelos will be in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, Jose Campos won’t be ready, and who knows what the Yankees will have in Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova or David Phelps?

If Hughes truly does take another step forward and proves to be a dependable No. 3 starter, he’ll be as reliable an option as the Yankees could hope for. Giving him a multi-year deal might very well mean having to cut corners elsewhere — maybe in the outfield, in the bullpen, or once again behind the plate — but a four- or five-year deal with Hughes might be the Yankees best and least risky way of bringing some rotation stability.

Naturally, there would be considerable risk with such a contract, but that’s true of any long-term deal with any pitcher. At least Hughes would be relatively young, meaning the Yankees wouldn”t have to sign him into his late 30s. He would be coming off back-to-back pretty good years, and three solid years in the past four.

For any of this to matter, Hughes will have to prove he deserves a long-term commitment. Proving that means consistency and durability. If he does that, the Yankees might have to make Hughes an offseason priority and find ways to save their money elsewhere.

Associated Press photo