I’m not ready to become all jelly-legged about Phil Hughes, not based on a trio of starts. Hughes’ drop in velocity is not as unusual as some make it out to be. I remember just last year the articles that were written in the Bay Area expressing dismay over Madison Bumgarner’s springtime loss of velocity. By the end of the regular season, Bumgarner was not only a significant part of the Giants’ rotation, but he was the No. 4 starter in the postseason, pitching for a world championship team. During the regular season, Bumgarner pitched to the tune of a 3.00 ERA. And then he pitched even more effectively in the postseason, culminating in a scoreless eight-inning start against the Rangers in the World Series.
Assuming that Hughes is not hurt, I think his velocity will return. (It was a bit better on Thursday night against Baltimore.) A 24-year-old pitcher doesn’t usually lose his fastball unless there is something wrong with his elbow or his shoulder. But Hughes could be serving as a test case for what is a flawed organizational pitching philosophy. The Yankees are so overly protective of their minor league pitchers, employing the strictest of pitch counts and innings limits, that it makes me wonder if they are hindering their development.
It’s one thing to avoid giving young pitchers 220-inning workloads in the minor leagues; it’s quite another to bend to the other extreme and do damage in another way. If pitchers don’t throw enough, they can’t develop arm strength, and if they can’t develop arm strength, they won’t be able to throw as hard as they are capable. If pitchers can’t even give you 175 innings in the minor leagues (Hughes never went higher than 146 in a season), how can they be expected to give you anywhere close to 200 innings in the majors, where the competition is stiffer and the pressure is greater?
Despite a bevy of pitching prospects over the last 15 years, the Yankees have failed to develop even one long-term starter who has successfully followed in the footsteps of Andy Pettitte. Chien-Ming Wang came the closest, with three and a half good seasons of pitching, but a devastating and luckless series of injuries has put his career at the crossroads. Ian Kennedy has done pretty well in Arizona, but it’s hard to project how he would have done pitching in the potboiler that is the American League East. We’ve seen the disappointing development of Joba Chamberlain, who is s trying to salvage his career as a mere middle inning reliever. Hughes might still become that guy, but right now there are questions. All in all, the success rate just isn’t there, and that has to raise questions about the legitimacy of the Yankees’ ultra-conservative pitching philosophy.
I’m willing to be wrong about this. I’m hoping I’m wrong about this. But if Hughes does not rebound, and if neither Manny Banuelos or Dellin Betances become the frontline starters that they are projected to be, well then, it does make you wonder if an organizational change needs to be made somewhere down the road…
It’s easy to forget about those players who failed to make the Yankees this spring and were sent back to the minor leagues, but the talent that the organization has stockpiled at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre is impressive. The everyday lineup at Scranton features two legitimate high-end prospects in Jesus Montero and third baseman Brandon Laird, three former major leaguers in Chris Dickerson, Greg Golson, and Ramiro Pena, and a potential role player in former Mexican League standout Jorge Vazquez.
Then there’s the starting pitching. Even with the recent promotion of Hector Noesi to the Bronx, the Yankees still have four prospects in their Triple-A rotation: Andrew Brackman, D.J. Mitchell, David Phelps, and Adam Warren. There is no journeyman minor league filler among that group. More experienced pitching talent is also on the way in the form of heavyweight Carlos Silva, signed off the Cubs’ scrap heap, and middleweight Kevin Millwood, a wintertime free agent who had to settle for a minor league deal. And let’s not forget Mark Prior, who is targeted to pitch out of the Scranton bullpen at some point this summer.
Simply put, the depth at Triple-A is a major asset for the Yankees. Because of both legitimate injuries and the overly cautious use of the disabled list in today’s game, teams can no longer win with just a 25-man roster. It takes at least eight to 12 additional players, either coming up through the system or through trade and the waiver wire, to help out during the course of a long season. If nothing else, the Yankees should have those extra dozen players available to aid them through the lean times of the long season.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.