Although the Yankees are trying to apply leverage in the A.J. Burnett trade talks, it seems inevitable that the right hander will be dealt before pitchers and catchers report to Tampa on Sunday. Considering how stealthy Brian Cashman has been of late, it’s hard to believe he would have allowed the negotiations to become public if a hand shake wasn’t in the offing.
For obvious reasons, the last thing the Yankees need is to open camp with an ornery Burnett besieged by reporters wanting to know how he feels about the team’s attempt to jettison him. The mercurial right hander, who has alternated between throwing pies and punching walls, has become enough of distraction by virtue of his poor performance, so adding a disgruntled element to his already over-explored psyche could prove to be a tipping point.
Aside from trying to avoid early uneasiness and distraction, another reason the Yankees are working so hard to trade Burnett before Sunday is so they can fully focus on what could be the last attempt to revive Phil Hughes’ Yankees career. As early as last November, the organization seemed committed to giving Hughes one last chance to fulfill his potential, and, all throughout the winter, there have been reports about the right hander’s offseason commitment to making good on that opportunity. One of baseball’s most clichéd annual rite of spring deals with players reporting to camp “in the best shape of their life,” but after an injury riddled early career marked by a questionable dedication to conditioning, talk of a fitter Hughes is more than just a preseason bromide.
In 2012, Hughes will be pitching in his age-25 season, the same point at which Curt Schilling finally lived up to his potential. On numerous occasions, Schilling has credited the turnaround in his career to a talk he had with Roger Clemens in 1991. While both pitchers were working out in Houston (the team to which Schilling had been traded that offseason), the veteran Clemens lectured Schilling on the dedication needed to become a top flight pitcher, a discussion he took to heart and put to good use. Perhaps, if Clemens’ off-the-field troubles hadn’t kept him away from the Yankees’ clubhouse, Hughes would already have been the beneficiary of a similar chat? Regardless, if he has truly found a renewed dedication to his craft, the realization is better late than never.
Despite his recent struggles, which have pretty much lasted since the second half of 2010, Hughes career has not been without success. Unfortunately, it has also been plagued by injury. As a result, the optimism generated by his limited success as a starter has repeatedly been contradicted by periods of ineffectiveness, which many have attributed to his less than stellar conditioning. The talent is there, so maybe, just maybe, with improved fitness will come better health and sustained success? For many Yankees’ fans who have already given up on Hughes, that probably seems like wishful thinking, but, with the alternative being Burnett, a dream is preferable to the continuation of a nightmare.
Although Brian Cashman has repeatedly stated he is comfortable with A.J. Burnett in the rotation, the rumors from the past week speak much louder than those words. Last year, with a rotation composed of an unproven rookie and two veteran retreads, the Yankees had no choice but to roll the dice and hope for a resurgent Burnett. After a second year of snake eyes, however, Cashman made sure to bolster the starting staff, lessening the team’s dependence on Burnett. As a result, the Yankees no longer need to cross their fingers in hopes of rediscovering the good AJ. Instead, the team’s risk tolerance would be better spent seeing if Hughes can re-emerge. Either way, the fifth slot in the rotation would be question mark, but with the Hughes, an affirmative answer could have an impact far beyond 2012.
Even if the urgency to trade Burnett is as much about clearing a path for Hughes as simply ridding the team of a distraction, the 25-year old right hander will still probably have to win his spot during Spring Training. However, Hughes shouldn’t have to outperform the veteran Freddy Garcia as much as exhibit improved mechanics, control, and velocity, not to mention maintain his health and conditioning. If Hughes can accomplish those goals in March, he should be back in the rotation come April. First, however, Cashman must get rid of Burnett in February.