Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Phil of the Future

Yesterday, it was announced that on Thursday, the New York Yankees will call up RHP Phil Hughes for his major league debut. This is a significant event for this storied franchise, and not just because the tattered rotation of 2007 will be featuring its fourth rookie starting pitcher. It is significant because Phil Hughes is the #1 pitching prospect in all of baseball, a player who was not only drafted by, but also developed by the spendthrift and prospect depleted New York Yankees.

To put this in perspective, here is a list of the #1 draft picks of the Yankees who, in my lifetime, have ever appeared in a major league game:

1990 Carl Everett, OF
1993 Derek Jeter, SS
1996 Eric Milton, SP
2001 John Ford-Griffin, OF (7 ML Games)

Here now is a list of all of the pitchers who were obtained via the amateur draft and went on to be part of the rotation for the New York Yankees:
1986: Scott Kamieniecki (debut 1990)
1987: Dave Eiland (debut 1990)
1989: Sterling Hitchcock (debut 1993)
1990: Andy Pettitte (signed as a FA in 1991, debut 1995)

Further, here is a selected list of "the next big thing" pitchers that I can remember in my life as a Yankee fan, and what happened to them.
1991 #1 Overall Draft Pick Brien Taylor: After signing to the biggest bonus in MLB history ($1.55 million), Taylor pitched less than one season before tearing his labrum while in a bar fight defending his brother. He missed two seasons and was finally released by the Yankees in 1998, and remains one of two #1 overall picks to never make it to the majors.
Ed Yarnell: Yarnell was involved in two fairly infamous trades before he even through a pitch in the majors. First, having been hyped by the NY press for a few years, he was traded by the Mets to the Marlins in a package that brought them Mike Piazza. Less than a year later, the Marlins swapped Yarnell right back to NY, this time to the Yankees for Mike Lowell. After recovering from cancer, Lowell would go on to lead the Marlins to the 2003 World Series title; Yarnell retired in 2004 having pitched just 20 innings in the majors.
Jake Westbrook: Out of all the prospect pitchers the Yankees have traded away since 1996, Westbrook is probably the most successful. Originally obtained in the Hideki Irabu dump in 1999, Westbrook was rushed through the minors, pitching in AAA at age 22, made two terrible starts for the Yanks in 2000, and was promptly traded for David Justice at the deadline. The trade worked out, as there is probably no three-peat for the Yanks if Justice is not there, and Westbrook has become an All-Star caliber pitcher for the Indians.

There are other similar stories to Westbrook, pitchers such as Brandon Claussen and Ted Lilly and Brad Halsey who were all rushed to the major leagues in order to appear more attractive, and then used as trade bait. Meanwhile the Yankees got their pitchers off the free agent market or via ill-advised trades. This has begun to change, starting with the rise of Chien-Ming Wang in 2005 and 2006. Wang, who makes his first start of the season tonight, was himself a 2001 foreign free agent signing, and is a little more like Irabu and Jose Contrares than Phil Hughes and Brien Taylor.

Hughes is young. He is two months away from his first legal alcoholic drink. As Steve Lombardi points out, no one has ever pitched 65 innings for the New York Yankees in a season that they started younger than 21 years old. Success in the major leagues when making a debut at Hughes' age is very risky: for every Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden, and Fernando Venezaula, there is a Rick Ankiel, a Mike Witt, and a Dave Rozema. Meanwhile, the state of the New York Yankees is a bit desperate: sitting at just 8-9 and four games behind Boston already, the Yanks' rotation is in shambles. One must wonder at the wisdom behind putting a season of the most dissected sports franchise in the world onto the shoulders of such a young man. The pressure to produce right away is palpable- while there is no question that Hughes has the ability to get major league hitters out, the rate at which he does so may be limited at first.

At each level- high A Tampa, AA Trenton, and AAA Scranton, he has struggled in his first two starts. It is reasonable to expect him to do the same in his first starts in the majors. It would be not altogether unlike the debut of the man he idolizes and draws comparisons to: Roger Clemens. In 1984, the Rocket struggled in his first 8 starts, giving up about 4.5 runs per start and seldom making it past the fifth inning. It wasn't until his complete game, 9 K performance against the Blue Jays, that things started to turn around for Roger.

Here are the things that are known about Hughes: He has, in 265 professional innings, struck out 289 batters while walking only 60 and surrendering just six homers. He has a mid-to-high 90s moving fastball, a superb curveball, and has developed a nasty 78 mph changeup, and can throw all three wherever he wants, whenever he wants, at all times. After those first two starts, Hughes has absolutely dominated each level he has been at, while often facing hitters three to five years older than he. On Thursday he will face his hardest challenge of all, against experienced hitters such as Vernon Wells, Troy Glaus, and Frank Thomas. It is a significant day in the course of a storied franchise, and whether he shines or falters, Phil Hughes is here to stay as a beacon of the New Age of the New York Yankees: Pride, Power, and Youthful Pinstripes.

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