The New York Yankees postseason run in 2011 was cut short due to a lack of dominant starting pitching. This winter Brian Cashman and the Yankees brass addressed this situation with the additions of Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda. With these pieces, New York will look to rebound and make another deep run in 2012 with their powerful lineup and deep bullpen.
An intriguing piece to the Yankee puzzle this coming season is 25-year-old right-hander Phil Hughes. Hughes had quite the coming out party in 2010, winning 18 games and punching out 146 batters earning a bid to the All-Star game. But his success was abruptly forgotten, as 2011 was something of a nightmare for the starting pitcher. Last year, Hughes saw his ERA balloon to 5.79, and was only able to muster a 5-5 record.
Right out of the gates in 2011, New Yorkers knew they weren’t seeing the same pitcher. In his three April starts last year, Hughes allowed 16 runs in 10.1 innings. His velocity was noticeably down, his command was atrocious, and there simply wasn’t a whole lot to be happy about.
Shoulder issues most likely had a lot to do with it. Some analysts speculate that the Yankees may have mismanaged the youngster, and allowed him to throw too many innings in 2010. In 2008, Hughes threw under 80 innings while in 2009 he threw just over 100. But in 2010 Hughes found himself on the mound for over 170 innings, which could easily explain why his arm flamed out last year.
But as 2011 wore on, Hughes would eventually find his stride. The velocity began to creep up in September, as Hughes was regularly being clocked at 93 mph. Earlier in the season Hughes was struggling to touch 90 on the gun. The life on his curve was also coming back, as well as the command that guided him in 2010.
One aspect of the pitcher’s game that will need improvement will be his ability to keep lefties of the bases. In 2011, Hughes struggled against left-handers, allowing them to hit at a .312/.368/.473 clip. That being said, he seemed to show improvements last year as his health re-emerged and he got his stuff back. Just like any right-hander who isn’t throwing laser beams, Hughes needs to be able to pitch lefties inside and make them uncomfortable. He does posses a fairly decent cutter, which along with offering his 12-6 curveball inside should help do the trick.
Of course, it isn’t a foregone conclusion that Hughes will break camp in the starting rotation. Pending league approval it appears A.J. Burnett is on his way to Pittsburg via trade, but Hughes will still have to prove he is a more viable candidate than Freddy Garcia who had a solid year in 2011 at the age of 35. Garcia pitched 146.2 innings last season, going 12-8 with a 3.62 ERA.
But Phil Hughes will be entering camp in good shape this year. He’s dropped 20 pounds this winter and apparently means business. Hughes has had some success in the bullpen, but given his abilities it might be hard to imagine the Yankees keeping him out of the rotation.
If Hughes can right the ship and re-emerge as the pitcher he was two years ago, then all of the sudden the Yankees become a very scary team. Despite the heavy aging of many of the regulars in their lineup, this offense can still rake. And the bullpen which led all of baseball in WAR last season is still a daunting cast of characters for opposing teams to score runs on.
The Detroit Tigers did not have a better lineup or a better bullpen than the Yankees last year. But as good as C.C. Sabathia is, he alone could not duel the likes of Justin Verlander, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer. But the Yankees have no doubt made steep improvements on their rotation this winter. Hiroki Kuroda is a cagey veteran who knows how to pitch. Michael Pineda shows tons of promise. And Ivan Nova had a pretty good case for AL Rookie of the Year in 2011. If you slot a revamped Phil Hughes in at the no. 5 spot, all of the sudden this rotation looks pretty nasty.
If the starting pitching gels in New York this summer, maybe Jeter and Rivera can bring home another title to add to their legacy.