Back in 2009, the New York Yankees had a big decision to make. They had been using light-hitting, solid-fielding Melky Cabrera in centerfield for three seasons, but swooned for the days of Bernie Williams–a sure-fire All-Star. Due to this, the Yankees organization officially had a man-crush on Curtis Granderson. The 29 year-old outfielder had just enjoyed a 30 HR/20 SB season in 2008, so his value was at an all-time high for the Detroit Tigers. The only issue for the Yankees wasn’t whether to trade top prospects for Granderson, but rather, which top prospects. Among the Yanks “untouchables” stood a 6-5 right-handed hurler with a four-pitch repertoire. That pitcher was Phil Hughes.
It wasn’t the first time Hughes had almost been traded for a high-shelf player. Prior to the 2008 season, the Minnesota Twins had demanded Hughes as part of a package for ace Johan Santana. Not wanting to part with Hughes (or possibly extend Santana for the many years), the prospect stood pat. Considering the lack of baseball Santana threw in 2011 and his monstrous contract, it was a good non-move by the Yankees.
Other teams’ interest in Hughes wasn’t all too surprising. The then 23 year-old got the call to the bigs in late-April 2009, and dazzled. His starting debut was, ironically, against the Detroit Tigers. Even though Hughes had previously seen Major League innings in both 2007 and 2008, this time, it was as a starter. Immediately inserted into the rotation, Hughes hurled six shutouts innings, giving-up just two hits, two walks, while striking-out six batters. In 86 innings total in 2009 (including seven starts), Hughes owned a 3.03 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and 3.43 K/BB.
In the off-season, the Yankees decided to hang onto Hughes again, and instead dealt their other top pitching prospect Ian Kennedy in addition to Austin Jackson and Phil Coke as part of a three-team deal, landing Granderson in New York. At the time, the decision to retain Hughes was a prudent one. Hughes cracked the Yankees rotation in 2009, and enjoyed an extremely successful first-half. The righty pitched to the tune of a 3.65 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 3.14 K/BB, and even managed 11 Wins. Hughes’ accomplishments earned him a spot on the All-Star team, and the Yankees front office gleaned with self-approval.
But then an entirely different pitcher trotted out to the mound in the second-half of 2010. Despite the dominance he exhibited during the first-half of the season, Hughes posted a mediocre 4.90 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, and 1.90 K/BB in the latter half. His strikeouts dipped from 8.1 K/9 to 6.6 K/9, and his good control (2.58 BB/9) soured (3.46 BB/9). The Yankees were upbeat, however, and assumed Hughes’ upcoming 2011 would reflect his magnificent first-half statistics. Unfortunately, that would not be the case.
The right-hander’s velocity noticeable dipped, leading to a dismal 13.94 ERA, 2.20 WHIP, and 0.75 K/BB in his first three starts. There’s was obviously something wrong. Hughes was then placed on the disabled list with “arm fatigue” (later diagnosed as “shoulder inflammation”), resurfacing 2.5 months later on July 6. The formerly emerging ace posted a 4.54 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 2.21 K/BB over 61.3 innings as a starter in 2011, but another 3 innings as a reliever–a role the Yankees forced on him towards the end of the season due to their starting depth.
This past off-season, in part because of their uncertainty in Hughes, the Yankees added Michael Pineda, Hiroki Kuroda, and recently even Andy Pettitte to the rotation shuffle. With seven competent starting pitchers for just five spots, it’s very possible the Yankees will dangle at least one of them. It’s safe to assume their three latest additions as well as C.C. Sabathia and Ivan Nova are safe–so that leaves Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes on the chopping block. Due to Hughes’ experience in the bullpen, there’s a chance the Yanks use him as a starter until Pettitte is ready to-go, and then convert the righty into a reliever. But even the Yankees probably realize that Hughes should be a starting pitcher. Hypothetically, the team could dangle one of them in an attempt to fill some holes (say, a left-handed reliever), but Hughes would certainly be the better trade bait over the 35 year-old and less talented Garcia.
Given the Mets own left-handed reliever woes, the two New York teams don’t quite match-up at the Major League level. However, that doesn’t mean the Mets couldn’t send a few prospects cross-town in exchange for Phil Hughes. The Yankees don’t really have the means to properly showcase the once helpful pitcher, which hopefully makes him a good buy-low candidate. It’s difficult to form a prospect package, as it’s unclear how the Mets front office view Hughes’ future, and also what kind of Minor League players the Yankees would covet. Obviously, the likes of Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Jeurys Familia, and Brandon Nimmo would be off-limits, but maybe Cesar Puello, Wilmer Flores, and/or Jordany Valdespin would be of interest. It’s also possible a third team would have to get involved if the Yankees refused to bite on any of the Mets offerings.
Hughes on the Mets seems far-fetched, but a move to the National League–and Citi Field in particular–would do wonders for the fly-ball pitcher. Even in his stellar 2010 season, the right-hander only rolled balls at a 36.1% clip, and sported a lofty 10.1% HR/FB (12th in the AL). In terms of slots, the Mets rotation is currently full, but not in the same way the Yankees rotation is. The prospective addition of Hughes would gladly knock Dillon Gee to Triple-A, and at the very least, provide insurance for Johan Santana. In all likelihood, Hughes will be a Yankee, and probably be shuttled between the rotation and bullpen. For his sake, one can only hope he doesn’t turn into the next Joba Chamberlain.