Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Hughes Wang Dilemma

Over the past couple of years entire forests and billions of bytes have been laid to waste in debating two hot button topics in Yankeedom: the bullpen and how best to utilize the Yankees' young pitching prospects. Thanks to one Joba Chamberlain, the two have often intersected. Today I will willingly add to the tired debate. It's not that I want to keep beating this dead horse, but the Yankees make it impossible for this to go away.

Joba-gate has seemingly reached a turning point, as the combination of Joba's dominating performance Monday combined with the sublimely absurd and maniacal Francesa rant last week seemingly had made the whole debate implode upon itself.

But there is still the Phil Hughes/Chien-Ming Wang situation. On Wednesday, just one day after the team announced there were no plans to make any changes to the rotation, the Yankees made a change to the rotation. Sound familiar? It should. This is the same switch-a-roo the team pulled just two weeks ago when they announced on one day that CMW would make one more rehab start, only to activate him in a panic the very next day.

As a brief aside, the New York Yankees, Brian Cashman, and Joe Girardi are under no moral, ethical, or professional obligation to be forthright or truthful with the media, and by extension, the fanbase. However, the continued pattern of intentionally vague or misleading answers, or in many instances outright untruths, is growing tiresome. Rarely, if ever, is there any competitive advantage to disguising the truth in this way. Rather, it gives the impression that the organization is petty at best or clueless at worst. In either case, the Front Office's credibility is undermined.

So once again, as we said in yesterday's game preview, the move is as follows: Chien-Ming Wang will start this afternoon's game. CC Sabathia gets pushed back from today to tomorrow, and Phil Hughes gets bumped from the rotation for an as-of-yet undetermined role in the bullpen. The question is, what are we to make of all of this?

Jay and I discussed this briefly last night. Here's his take:
Hughes should go to Scranton and stay on a starter's regimen. The amount of innings he throws is more important than the the difference between facing AAA and MLB hitters.
In my opinion, Jay has a solid point there. The most important thing for Phil Hughes this year (and Joba Chamberlain for that matter) is to hit his innings cap. Given their respective injury histories, neither is as far along in innings as the organization would like for them to be. In order for both to make the maximum contribution over the next several years, the organization is going to need to rely upon these guys for 200 IP per season. And the only way to attain that is to ensure that they hit their innings caps this year, and the next and so on.

That said, I don't have a problem with this move right now. My biggest gripe is that it pushes CC back a day; why not keep your ace on schedule? Secondary to that, I continue to be perplexed by the way the Yankees continue to jerk Wang around (innuendo only partially intended). Pete Abe has touched on this repeatedly in the past two weeks, most notably here.

I don't think there's any intent on their part per se, but it is curious that they seemingly don't value him like a pitcher that won had won 46 games from the start of the 2006 season through his foot injury last June. First there was the knee-jerk reactionary activation two weeks ago. The came the news that the organization played a role in botching his rehab. Then yesterday, just a day after essentially stating that he would remain in the pen, came the news that Wang would actually be starting the next day's game. I can only hope that the team was more up front with Wang on Tuesday than they were with the media. Still, Wang had to return to the rotation at some point, and all else considered, I suppose today is as good a time as any to give it a go.

The part I have the least problem with is the Hughes portion of the move. I'm not in any way advocating making Hughes a reliever. There's even less reason to make Hughes a reliever long term than there is to make Joba a reliever. Cashman wouldn't surrender Hughes for Johan Santana, so anyone who thinks for one second that Hughes is the eighth inning answer is off their rocker. Hughes, like Joba, will be given every opportunity to become the front line starter that his potential suggests he can be. But for now, he'll get a chance to contribute out of the pen.

Despite his inconsistencies this year, Hughes has shown that he is an MLB ready pitcher. He is by no means a finished product, but he has spent time at AAA in each of the last three years and has little if anything left to prove there. Any further development can come at the Major League level; the only reason to return him to Scranton would be to ensure a regular workload to reach his innings cap.

While that is a point that should not be underestimated, there is plenty of reason to keep Phil Hughes with the big club for the time being. First and foremost, there is no guarantee, despite being impressive in his last two outings, that Wang will be ready for or capable of full time starting duty just yet. I shudder at the thought of what that would mean for Wang for the rest of 2009, but at the very least, Phil Hughes will still be around as a contingency rather than having to wait the requisite 10 days to return if he were to be optioned out.

Furthermore, as Alfredo Aceves has shown over the past month, there is value in having a relief pitcher that is capable of pitching multiple innings without merely being a mop-up man. For their own reasons, both statheads and old schoolers alike have bemoaned the widespread LaRussa-ization of the modern bullpen: one inning stints, defined roles, etc. With Aceves and Hughes now, the Yankees have the opportunity to deploy a uniquely constructed bullpen as envisioned by Joe at RAB earlier this week.

It's an interesting concept, and one I think could work. Before the 2008 season started, and before injuries and ineffectiveness undermined the pitching staff, I had advocated utilizing Joba Chamberlain in a similar role. Don't mistake me for a Joba to the bullpen guy, that's not the point at all. The issue last year, and again this year, is that the Yankees have two valuable pitchers who have rather low limits on the number of innings they can pitch. The team has the opportunity and the reason to employ an effective, if unconventional, pitching staff as it relates to Joba's and Hughes' innings limits over the remainder of the season.

In the end this will likely be a short term move. An injury or a double header will likely necessitate Hughes being in the rotation again at some point. The return of Brian Bruney and/or Damaso Marte, or the emergence of Mark Melancon will likely land Hughes back in the Scranton rotation at some point. But in the meantime, I'll be very interested to see how this all plays out.


  1. The one thing I would about it the switching of roles leading to injury. It might be a conincidence that it happened with Joba, but the awkward stretching out probably didn't help the case. I also think it's better for Hughes to try and go deep into games and be economical with his pitches, even if that is in Scranton.

    In the 'pen, Hughes is going to be used when ever the situation dictates, not what is best for his development. I don't think it's worth it for the Yankees to get some marginally better bullpen performance for a couple of weeks, as opposed to sending him down and keeping him on his starting rhytym.

  2. Steve - that's a very valid concern. We'll never know for sure if Joba's hasty transition had any impact on his injury. But as you rightly state, it couldn't have helped.

    I'm more comfortable with what's happening with Hughes right now than I was with the way Joba was handled last year.

    I truly believe that Hughes is just hanging around until they're confident Wang is OK. Then, as long everyone else is healthy (Pettitte), he'll go back to Scranton and start. As I said, they wouldn't give him up for Johan, so they're not gonna be dicking him around too much.

    Since it doesn't appear to be a long term move I'm ok with it. I think it could work well given the uniqueness of the current situation. But your mileage may vary, and probably does.

  3. Can't wait to see Wang melt down today against one of the most potent offenses in baseball! Let's go Texas!

  4. I don't at all have a problem with Girardi and Cashman's "honesty". I just don't see it the way you do. I completely understand why they did what they did in this situation. I agree with not saying that Wang would start Thursday until they knew that he definitely would not be needed on Wednesday. No need telling the guy and the rest of the world that he would be starting if there was a chance that they might take it back. A lot of announcements can't be made until the last minute. I know you are going to say they are dishonest with other things as well, but I guess I just don't care. Torre was just as "honest" in my opinion. He just won more.