Given my predilection for predictions, here’s the template for what’s happened, is happening and will happen with struggling Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes. Like the stages of grief, it goes in segments.
I’m not here to diagnose. I’m here to observe and report; express and explain; serve and protect.
Stage 1—Explanatory Calm:
Going back to spring training there were whispers about Hughes’s alarming lack of velocity.
Being it was spring training, there was nothing to be concerned about, but clearly there was pause emanating from all parties as to why a seemingly healthy and well-protected 24-year-old couldn’t achieve previous heights with his fastball.
Contrary to popular belief, velocity isn’t the most important thing in a pitcher’s arsenal—provided he has the ancillary pitches and control to get by without it; Hughes has always been able to rely on a live fastball to get through if he needed it.
The Yankees hierarchy gave the cliché responses of not worrying, but obviously they’re worried. And they should be.
Stage 2—Game Circumstances:
Hughes got blasted by the Tigers in his first start; he got rocked by the Red Sox in his second start. He looked and said he was “lost” and is grasping for answers; clutching at that missing few inches on his fastball that’s so unexplainable in its appearance and disappearance.
Despite the idiotic talk from the likes of Buster Olney who said, via Twitter:
“You’d have to assume the Yankees will talk about replacing Hughes in their rotation with Colon; for whatever reason, Hughes has no weapons.”
The Yankees won’t replace Hughes as long as he’s healthy because they can’t replace Hughes.
Fastball or not, he has to pitch and hope his fastball comes back.
Stage 3—The Obvious Process:
The biggest hurdle with his fastball isn’t necessary the pitch itself; nor is it the diminished velocity.
The issue is that everyone, everywhere is talking about it and expressing their personal and uneducated opinions about what’s wrong with Hughes and how to repair it.
The Yankees themeselves aren’t saying what their diagnosis is—publicly. Perhaps there’s a lingering injury that won’t get any worse if he pitches through it, but is sabotaging his fastball. It could be to his lower body, his shoulder, his hips—we don’t know.
The relentless chatter will be a ghostly presence around Hughes as he climbs from his hole.
Chatter from the media; the fans; teammates; opponents—everyone—will make matters worse.
Desperation to regain what he lost will lead him to try too hard; to incorporate all the advice he receives and create a mishmash of techniques, movement and exercises; this will add to the confusion and self-doubt.
It won’t take long before someone suggests he head to the Florida Keys to engage in alligator wrestling under a full moon to regain his fastball.
And Hughes tries it.
I find if laughable that laypeople are diagnosing the Hughes “problem”.
Maybe GM Brian Cashman would like to simplify matters and blame Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen. Although it didn’t fly with the Pedro Feliciano back-and-forth, it doesn’t mean you abandon the strategy after one failure. And last year, Dave Eiland was a convenient scapegoat for A.J. Burnett.
Stage 4—Panic and Reality:
The Yankees are not in a position to remove Hughes from the starting rotation if he’s healthy enough to pitch. Bartolo Colon looked good yesterday, but he’s 38; has a long injury-history and hasn’t been a regular part of a big league club’s starting rotation since 2005. Do you really believe he’s the answer? The answer to questions that were present before the Hughes enigma?
As for Freddy Garcia, the Yankees are making painstaking gymnastic flips to prevent him from pitching; I recently said that Garcia won’t last past May-June in a Yankees uniform, but he might hang around if he never pitches.
Neither Colon nor Garcia are long-or-short term answers for an absent Hughes.
The Yankees are in deep, deep trouble without Phil Hughes delivering some semblance of what he did last year. Their 2011 starting rotation was woefully short with Hughes pitching up to his potential.
Their bullpen-based strategy was contingent on getting length from CC Sabathia, Burnett and Hughes; Ivan Nova is gutty and looked good in his first start, but they don’t know what they’ll get from him over the course of the season; and the fifth starter—Garcia—hasn’t been used yet.
Pushing the bullpen hard to account for another pitcher in their rotation is going to exhaust its reserves by mid-season. Girardi overmanages anyway and with the finger on the button of pulling his starter to win games with Hughes as well, they’re going to blow out.
The Yankees will have no choice but to start scouring baseball for starting pitching. Presumably this will be after giving Kevin Millwood a chance. Teams know the desperation; they’re aware of the Yankees farm system; Felix Hernandez is not available.
Will they find themselves in a dogfight for a playoff spot at the trading deadline (or sooner) and have to ante up more than they want to for a James Shields? Ryan Dempster? Carlos Zambrano? Fausto Carmona? Chris Carpenter?
And what if the bullpen is shot by mid-season? They’re going to need relievers too.
The Yankees have a problem here.
A big one.
Currently, they can wait and use what they have to get through the Hughes starts, hoping that his fastball and confidence reappear just as miraculously/disturbingly as they vanished.
After that, then what?
What if it doesn’t come back?
What if he’s hurt?
What are they going to do?
Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available and will be useful for your fantasy leagues all season long. It’s not a “preview”; it’s a guide.
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