Friday, June 3, 2011

New York Yankees: What Do They Do with Phil Hughes When He Comes off the DL?

In the early days of June, the New York Yankees have somehow found themselves still on top of the American League East division.

Last month, they looked like a team in turmoil. Yet somehow, they have a two-game lead over the Red Sox in the division.

How are the Yankees getting it done?

Starting pitching.

Before the 2011 season began, the rotation was their biggest question mark. When the Yankees failed to land Cliff Lee in the winter, they scrambled and searched for answers to address the starting rotation.

They took a chance on Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia with minor league contracts.

Colon is 3-3 with a 3.26 ERA with 66 strikeouts in 62 and a third innings.

Garcia is 4-4 with a 3.34 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 56 and two-thirds innings.

Both of these guys didn't even have guaranteed contracts before March 31, and already, they have exceeded everyone's expectations so far for the Yankees.

A.J. Burnett, who went 10-15 with an ERA over five last season and got removed from the playoff rotation in the American League Divisional Series against the Minnesota Twins, has turned it around for the Yankees, and it's showing.

Burnett is 6-3 with a 3.86 ERA with 57 strikeouts in 74 and two-thirds innings.

CC Sabathia, the staff's ace, is having another fine season with a 6-3 record, a 2.98 ERA, 67 strikeouts in 84 and two-thirds innings.

Their fifth and final starter, Ivan Nova, might be the most suspect of the rotation.

Nova is 4-3 with a 4.67 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 54 and two-thirds innings.

Nova has had games where he's been knocked around several times, causing Joe Girardi to go to the bullpen a lot earlier than he wanted to.

Sabathia, Garcia, Colon, Burnett and Nova have been the five regular starters in the rotation since April 15, which is good because they have yet to face any major injuries to those guys.

They do have one starter though that did run into injuries early on, which caused him to be put on the DL back on April 15.

Phil Hughes was dreadful in his first three starts in 2011, going 0-1 with a 13.94 ERA. The Yankees then placed Hughes on the DL with what was called a dead arm.

It was clear Hughes velocity was down from 2010. Back in 2010, Hughes was hitting 92-95 consistently. In 2011, Hughes was hitting 88-90 consistently, his location was not good and was getting knocked around by every opponent.

After the team had multiple tests done on Hughes, it was determined Hughes had inflammation in his right shoulder.

This past week in Oakland, Hughes was able to throw a bullpen session pain-free, which could lead to his next step in facing live hitters, which is scheduled to take place when the team takes on the Los Angeles Angels this weekend.

If all goes well from the live hitters, Hughes could be sent out on a minor league rehab assignment, which could be in Tampa or Trenton.

Which poses the next question. What do the Yankees do with Hughes when he comes back?

According to Girardi, he will likely put Hughes back in the rotation, but if he does, who gets bumped? Could it be Nova?

When Hughes was placed on the DL, Colon moved from the long-reliever spot and took the rotation spot of Hughes.

Colon wasn't just given the spot, he earned it, and his numbers clearly show it. But you also have to wonder if he too will hold up for the season at age 38.

In some regards, this is a good problem to have.

There is the old saying in baseball, "you can never have enough pitching." If Hughes can find the form he had in 2010 which gave him 18 wins and a trip to the American League All-Star team, then the Yankees rotation may only get even better.

In fact, if Hughes can return to his form, that might only push Nova to pitch even better and push his game to another level.

In February and March, you had Nova, Garcia and Colon fighting for two rotation spots.

In the summer, you may see the possibility of Hughes and Nova fighting for that last spot, pending any injuries in the rotation.

If the Yankees don't in fact bump anyone from the rotation, Hughes has had history of being a very effective reliever.

In 2009, the Yankees rotation was full, so they put Hughes as the setup man for Mariano Rivera, which turned out to be a good move because Hughes was simply dominant in that role before being put back into the rotation in 2010.

The Yankees bullpen has been rather good with Rivera, David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain at the end of games so far. They were supposed to count on Rafael Soriano, but he's been on the DL for at least the next six to eight weeks.

I honestly doubt the Yankees would want to use Hughes in a bullpen spot again, but it wouldn't be unfamiliar territory to him if the situation did happen.

The question of Hughes will be one of many the Yankees will have to figure out as the summer months of the season are about to begin.

Stay tuned Yankees Universe.

Nicole Scherzinger Jill Arrington Tami Donaldson Padma Lakshmi

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