Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Moment of truth for Phil Hughes

To say this is a big start for Phil Hughes would be the epitome of an understatement.

If Hughes does not pitch well tonight and Ivan Nova turns in another quality start on Thursday, Hughes is probably going to lose his spot in the New York Yankees rotation to Nova.

The decision will go beyond numbers. Hughes only gave up two run in six innings in his last start, which Joe Girardi – and any other big-league manager – would gladly take in most circumstances. But Hughes struggled with his command in the latter half of the game and had to pitch out of several jams. In contrast, Nova pitched beautifully in giving up only two runs in seven innings in his last start, never really getting into too much trouble except for a jittery first inning. Hughes has to show confidence, command and consistency in this start or it could be the last time we see him starting a game for a while.

Would a return to the bullpen be a bad thing for Hughes? Yes and no, I think. He had great success as Mariano Rivera's set-up man in 2009, but that role is now solidly occupied by David Robertson. Banishment to the bullpen could give Hughes the space to work on the issues that continue to plague him, but it could also be a major hit to his confidence.

And what would such a bullpen move say about the Yankees long-term plans for Hughes? The Yankees have been grooming Hughes as a starter and sending him to the bullpen for an extended period of time could hurt that process. (Of course, the Yankees until the spring of 2010 also envisioned Joba Chamberlain as a starter, but those plans blew up in their faces as the Joba Rules failed to protect his arm). But the Yankees also can't ignore what Nova is doing, forcing himself into the equation by pitching so well. The Yankees are getting just as invested in Nova’s long-term development as they are in Hughes’.

I don't envy Girardi & Co. It's a tough call, but one that Hughes could turn into a non-call if he comes through with a performance tonight that reminds everyone that he is still the same guy who won 18 games last year.

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