Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fifth Spot Belongs to Phil Hughes

Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Baseball, like any other business, is full of politics. Sometimes, in order to keep "order," so that feathers aren't ruffled, management will tell an employee what they need to hear, instead of what they've already decided. As could be the case now with Brian Cashman and pitcher Freddy Garcia.

Below is an article from Joel Sherman of The New York Post, which pretty much confirms that, as per Cashman, Phil Hughes has already won the 5th spot in the Yankees rotation. This disspells the "illusion" that he and Garcia will be competing for it. Hughes' age, the Yankees investment in him and that they are only committed to Garcia for one year, seem to be the mitigating factors at play here. 

It will be interesting to see how other members of the media latch on to this story, as I am sure that Hughes, Cashman and Garcia will probably be asked to respond.

TAMPA — We can pretend there is a competition going on for the Yankees’ No. 5 starter spot, but that is what it is. Pretend. The WWE stages more realistic battles.

The Yankees are saying it is Freddy Garcia vs. Phil Hughes. But their general manager is also saying this: He believes Hughes is, right now, a top-of-the-rotation starter. That has not been said about Garcia since, oh, about 2001.

So this is a competition only because the Yankees want to sell you that this is a competition. They do not want a prideful veteran in Garcia to be offended. They do not want Hughes, who showed up out of shape last year, to feel he is being handed anything. And with six weeks to Opening Day, the potential for injury or stumble means the Yankees see no reason to publicly declare even a front-runner, much less a winner.

But understand this: The competition is rigged. If it is close, Hughes wins. If it is advantage Garcia, but only slightly, Hughes wins. Hughes can only lose this by doing what he did last spring, having his fastball go on a mysterious hiatus. The early signs are Hughes’ better dedication to offseason conditioning has led to less gut and more heat.

Normally anything in February or March should be ignored, but it was obvious in his first live batting practice session yesterday that Hughes’ arm was quick and his fastball had life.

“It is a heavier ball,” Russell Martin said. “He changed his body. He looks more explosive. He has more arm speed, which leads to a better breaking ball and more deception on the changeup.”

For his part, Hughes is mostly dismissing early signals as pretty inconsequential and promoting the idea of a fierce competition in which he must earn his way into the starting five.

But, again, we turn to the general manager, Brian Cashman, who when asked about rotation competition talks about “six guys for five spots.” But when asked specifically about Hughes, Cashman says: “Aside from last year he was viewed, and not just by us, as one of the better young arms in the game; with success to prove it. He was a dominant reliever for us in 2009 and an All-Star as a starter in 2010. Why would I judge him by last year when he was injured? It feels like everyone wants to take him down a peg. I think he is a top-of-the-rotation starter.”

And why exactly would “a top-of-the-rotation starter” not be at least the No. 5 man? Especially when the words associated with Garcia are “dependable,” “competitive” and “savvy.” When he was signed for one year at $4 million, the Yankees had not yet pulled off their trade for Michael Pineda or their signing of Hiroki Kuroda.

So not only was Garcia in the starting five, but so was A.J. Burnett. The additions of Pineda and Kuroda to join CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova enabled the Yankees to trade Burnett and, now, de-emphasize Garcia. If everyone is healthy (big if) come April, Garcia will be the long man, a proven safety net.

The sport has been gravitating the past few years toward more high-end pitching, and the Yankees believe to survive in the AL East you have to have elite stuff. Garcia finished last year at 12-8 with a 3.62 ERA. But against Boston and Toronto, the two best offenses in the division not belonging to the Yankees, the righty was 2-5 with a 5.31 ERA. Hughes had a 7.43 ERA against teams with a better than .500 record. But the Yankees do not think that was the real Phil Hughes.

At 25, he is 10 years younger than Garcia. These days the best Garcia can do is maintain his now-limited fastball and rely on his unflinching nature and high pitching IQ to compensate.

Also, the Yankees are committed to Garcia only through this season. Hughes, though, as young as he is, can be a free agent after next season. So, right now, he is like a college senior who has yet to declare a major. Is he starter or reliever, back end of the rotation or front?

Cashman believes he is front of the rotation. So the No. 5 competition today is just theater. Nevertheless, Hughes’ scholarship ends after this. Time to declare who he is.

Follow Rasheeda Cooper on twitter: @ra_cooper

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