Sunday, July 5, 2009

Wang Down...Where's the Hughes Love?

I hate being right. Remember when I said Phil Hughes or Alfredo Aceves would probably have to step out of bullpen roles to fill in as starters this year? Brace yourself. Chien-Ming Wang (and his glorious, barely single-digit ERA) has gone down with a strained right shoulder. His MRI also revealed bursitis. Manager Joe Girardi and the organization haven't had much to say about the Yankees' plans to fill the gap in the rotation, but Girardi did mention that he didn't expect Wang to start throwing at least until after the All-Star break.

In response to Wang's injury, the Yankees have recalled Jonathan Albaladejo and his 6.00 ERA through 21 IP.

Now, one thing is for certain. Albaladejo will not be making any starts in Wang's place. ESPN seems to think that the logical move for the Yankees is to call up Sergio Mitre from AAA to fill the hole in the rotation. The New York Daily News says that Phil Hughes has become too valuable to move out of the bullpen. Girardi seems to be fighting with the idea himself. He said Hughes had become "really, really important" in the setup role. With Brian Bruney's recent struggles, it's hard to argue.

I love Sergio Mitre. He has had flashes of brilliance at the Major League level. Two things, however, must be considered before he is called up to fill in for Wang. First, the Yankees also have Alfredo Aceves with the big club right now. He has pitched very well for the second consecutive year, and he showed promise last year as a starter. He has earned a shot with the Yankees, and he could be a starter in the longterm. The thing he has proven is that he is a versatile and talented arm, and the Yankees should consider taking this opportunity to see where he seems to fit best.

Secondly, Phil Hughes' development is more important than the 2009 season. That sentence may be unthinkable to most Yankees' fans. But the reality is that it is true. Hughes has finally begun to pitch with confidence at the big league level. It took years for him to truly command the game. And now he is looking virtually untouchable. The team needs to figure out if the extra velocity on his fastball that has been showing up in relief (it has recently climbed from 91-92 MPH to 95-96 MPH) is a result of the different nature of the workload or if he has simply physically matured at age 23. He does look more solid this season, for what its worth, so that isn't entirely out of the question.

But Hughes is supposed to be our go-to guy of the future. Joba Chamberlain has flashy stuff, and he strikes people out, but he isn't a pitcher yet. He is a thrower with really good stuff that overcompensates for his arrogant attitude on the mound and his lack of command. He is constantly pitching for the swing and miss. That is why he was effective late in games when he came up. He suffers from pre-Roy Halladay A.J. Burnett syndrome. Outs don't matter. Just strikeouts.

Chamberlain will most likely be a very good #2 starter at the Major League level someday, and if he becomes a control pitcher, he will be Roger Clemens (without steroids...and also without pitching into his 60's). But he doesn't have the combination of command and stuff that Hughes does. Hughes can be a #1 starter. He should get this chance to see if he can parlay his new confidence into succesful starts in the bigs. That confidence could be the thing that shows the kid he can be dominant with the big club as a starter. He needs the chance to develop his mentality on the mound.

In an ironic twist, the act of telling Hughes he has earned your confidence in the bullpen may have hurt his feelings. If he (who has probably been working with the hope of sticking with the club and filling in if anyone got hurt) gets rejected because of his success, it may mess with his psyche. Give the kid a big vote of confidence and hand him the ball. He is the future of your franchise. Even if it means that the team loses two more games this year because the bullpen is in flux, we need Hughes to feel important and feel like the Yankees are giving him the chances he so obviously deserves.

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