Thursday, July 7, 2011

Should the Yankees worry about Phil Hughes?

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Phil Hughes got off to a shaky start in his return to the mound Wednesday, but was that not to be expected?

Hughes walked Michael Brantley, the first batter he faced, and then allowed two singles, the second scoring Brantley. A Russell Martin throwing error led to another Indians run, but Hughes was able to get out of trouble down just 2-0.

Then he settled down...kind of. Hughes didn't have a clean inning all night but scattered three singles in the next three innings before hitting two Cabreras (Asdrubal and Orlando) and walking another batter in the fifth.

Hughes was able to get Lonnie Chisenhall to fly out to Brett Gardner to leave the bases loaded and end his night at 87 pitches.

All in all, it was a mixed bag of a return for Hughes. Five innings, ten baserunners, two strikeouts and 57 strikes compared to 30 balls. He worked his way into trouble in his first and last innings, but got out of the fifth without allowing a run or even a hit.

Stats are nice but what most Yankees fans are concerned about is Hughes' velocity. The 24-year-old right-hander hit as high as 93 mph on the radar gun and hit 92 at one point during his final inning.

But, as the New York Post reports, Hughes' average velocity dipped from 92.3 in the first inning to 91.5 in the third and 90.6 in the fifth, a bad sign for many who have questioned Ivan Nova's demotion to Triple-A to make room for Hughes.

While this drop in velocity may be reason for some to worry about Hughes' arm, it isn't for me. Most pitchers throw harder in the first inning than they do in the fifth, particularly one that hasn't thrown to major-league hitters in three months. Give the kid some time.

After allowing the first three batters he faced to reach base, Hughes allowed seven baserunners (still too many) and didn't allow a run on a hit, walk or hit batter. The late loss of control and two batters he hit are slightly worrisome, especially in the fifth inning when his velocity was dropping near pre-DL stint levels.

Overall it was a shaky first start back for Hughes, who obviously has some work to do before he gets back to his 2009 pre-All Star Break level. Some people I've talked to believe he never will, even before this start, while I'd like to see him throw a few more turns before I make any rash judgments.

Hughes is just 24 years old, an age where many pitchers are just starting their careers. Hughes already has an All-Star appearance and an 18-win season on his ledger, so he's earned a longer leash than one borderline start after a dead-arm period. I'm willing to be somewhat patient with him.

But are the Yankees? With Nova waiting for a rotation spot in Triple-A, the leash may be short if Hughes continues to struggle considering the way Nova was pitching since a rough April.

Some fans may be rooting for Hughes to fail and the team to bring back Nova, but I think that's a terrible way to look at the situation.

The Yankees need both youngsters in their rotation next season and, while Nova may be the odd man out as of now, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia are no locks to stay healthy and it's likely neither will be wearing pinstripes next season.

Rooting against Hughes is not the answer for Yankees fans in the short or long-term, regardless of how you feel about the situation with him and Nova. The Yankees will need both in 2012 and very possibly later this season as well - you want both of these guys pitching well, not just one.

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