Phil Hughes has had more ups and downs in his five seasons with the Yankees than most veterans are able to cram into much longer careers. In five years, Hughes’ career path has taken so many twists and turns that it’s no wonder some have written him off as a lost cause. However, when the 26-year old right hander takes the mound this afternoon, he’ll not only be making his spring debut, but also kicking off what could be his last chance to forge a meaningful career with the Yankees.
The story of Hughes roller coaster career not only provides a nice backdrop to his spring debut, but also serves as a cautionary tale with lessons that could be relevant to Michael Pineda. Although there are many differences between the two pitchers, some parallels are difficult to ignore, particularly with regard to Hughes’ last two seasons in pinstripes. As most Yankees fans are well aware, Hughes pitched like an All Star in the first half of 2010, but since then has struggled to perform and remain healthy. One reason often cited for the hard times he has encountered is a lack of conditioning, which became evident when he reported to camp out of shape in 2011. Throughout that spring, Hughes also suffered from a significant decline in velocity, but the Yankees initially chose to ignore the issue. Only after Hughes compiled a 13.94 ERA in his first three starts was he finally placed on the disabled list, but by then, it was too late.
How does this pertain to Pineda? Like Hughes in 2010, Pineda had a breakout first half, which included an All Star Game selection. However, he also struggled significantly in the second half until the Mariners decided to shut him down (both pitchers ended their respective seasons with an ERA+ of 103). Then, at the start of the spring, Pineda reported to camp overweight, and finally, in his first exhibition start, his velocity was in the same reduced range that foreshadowed Hughes’ troubles in 2011. What’s more, there’s also the constant talk about each pitcher’s need to develop a change-up, so, even though their ages, sizes, and repertoires differ, there are some general similarities worthy of note.
It would be silly to panic based on 10 pounds and two innings, but ignoring the warning signs, no matter how tenuous they may be, is just as foolish. Chances are Pineda will quickly round into shape, light up the radar gun, and make his Yankees’ debut during the first week of April. However, that’s not something the team should take for granted. Until Pineda’s weight and velocity readings are in line with expectations, the Yankees would be wise to scrutinize everything about the young right hander. Who knows, had they taken that approach with Hughes last season, and not looked past the same warning signs, his 2011 season could have been salvaged.
It’s hard to explain the backlash to the mere suggestion that Pineda might not start the season in the rotation, but perhaps it’s an attempt by Yankees’ fans to ensure instant gratification and justification for the Jesus Montero trade? If so, that can’t be the Yankees’ motivation. When Brian Cashman dealt for the talented right hander, the objective was to obtain a future ace, not “win the trade” in April. As much of we’d like to chart a course for Pineda, the Yankees need to be flexible because young pitchers don’t always travel the straight and narrow. Just ask Phil Hughes. He’s been down that road many times.