What Happens if Andy Pettitte Falters During his MLB Comeback?

May 13, 2012

Today marks the long anticipated return of New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, who has done his best Michael Jordan impersonation by retiring then un-retiring. His first start back is conveniently against the weakest hitting team in baseball, the Seattle Mariners. They are near the bottom of all the slash categories and near the top in strikeouts.

The Mariners are a good place to start for anybody, but especially a veteran stalwart coming off a year and a half absence and whose stuff in several minor league starts was not all that impressive.

Bet Ivan Nova wishes he were getting the ball today.

Coming back from a long absence is not easy. Some examples of success were Michael Vick’s return after missing two full seasons due to jail time, and running back Paul Hornung’s comeback was successful after he and Alex Karras were suspended for the entire 1963 NFL season for betting on football games. Both cemented their HOF credentials after they returned. Jordan’s comeback to the NBA was good after his stint as a baseball player. It goes to show what a tough sport baseball really is when the best athlete in the world at the time couldn’t cut it on the diamond.

And in baseball there were dozens of former players like Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller and others who successfully came back to the game after serving for years overseas in World War II.

But all of those players weren’t 40 years old.

Pettitte’s last game in pinstripes was in the 2010 ALCS in a Game Four start against the Texas Rangers.  He allowed two runs on five hits over seven innings, suffering the loss in an 8-0 Rangers win. The Rangers were only up 2-0 entering the 9th inning but the Yankee bullpen couldn’t hold them, with David Robertson allowing five runs. It got so bad that Sergio Mitre even pitched!

Pettitte allowed a two-run home run to Josh Hamilton and that was it.

It was a sturdy performance by Andy, and he kept the Rangers hitters off balance all night, mixing his curve and cutter in and out, but rarely breaking 90 MPH.

Now after that long layoff, reports had Pettitte topping out at 87 MPH during his comeback starts, with his fastball generally in the 83-85 range. That might not get it done against major league hitters, especially if he isn’t locating very well. Pettitte hasn’t exactly had good performances against the minor league hitters he has faced, getting knocked around much more as his pitch counts were rising.

His last start a week ago saw him allow eight hits in five innings, allowing five runs, three earned. And his only Double-A start saw Pettitte also allow three earned runs with seven hits in five innings. But strangely, expectations are better for Pettitte while facing much better hitters.

I think all of us probably kind of expect that we’re going to see Andy Pettite (sic), what we’re used to seeing,” Girardi said. “A guy that grinds out starts. That has the ability to get double plays. That doesn’t panic out there. I think you can only go back on what you’ve seen from him. It’s not like he’s trying to reinvent himself. I think his stuff is going to be pretty similar to what he had when he walked away in 2010. That’s kind of what I feel. Will I be right? I hope so, but we’ll find out.”

But what if Pettitte isn’t that guy again, the guy who was 11-3, 3.28 ERA his final season? What if the major league hitters get fat pitches over the middle of the plate, and flat cutters with no bite like the 2012 minor league hitters were seeing? What if Pettitte allows five earned runs today in 2 2/3 innings? It would be easy to demote Phil Hughes back to the pen or David Phelps back to Triple-A if the kids were really bad, but would it be easy to give up on a Yankee icon?

GM Brian Cashman and Girardi will definitely give Andy another start or three, likely many more as it seems his spot in the rotation now is secure.

But what if that type of performance continues where he was the way Hughes started the season, or God forbid, the way Freddy Garcia started? Start after start of getting knocked around, with a good performance here and there for effect? Does Andy get the benefit of the doubt because he is a veteran with 240 career wins?

If Andy falters, my feeling is that Girardi will give Andy as many starts to “right the ship” and “find his stuff” all to the detriment of the Yankee bullpen and record.

When all the Pettitte comeback talk was on back in February, I wrote that the Yankees should be doing this for Pettitte’s October experience. I offered they Yankees should let Pettitte work in slowly, getting in to some game after the All-Star break and working towards a post season start. The team needs to find out how Nova would do in his second season, they needed to find out if Hughes can become the starter everyone expected.

Then Michael Pineda got hurt, Garcia bombed and Hughes was roughed up in his early starts. All hell broke loose in Yankee-land and Pettitte’s time frame was pushed up.

It is not like Hughes has continued his decline or Phelps (2 GS, 8.2 IP, 2 ER, 8 Ks, 4 BB) has been terrible in his time on the mound. These kids have been pretty good so far. Although it is not been reported yet (Girardi never says any concrete until after it happens), but it is likely Phelps will go back to the bullpen, or maybe even Triple-A to “get his innings up” similar to how Eduardo Nunez was sent down to “play SS full-time.”

Pettitte was brought back for his experience but now he is “needed” to solidify what was once perceived to be a formidable rotation. I still believe the rotation is fine as it is, and gives the Yankee kids like Phelps some much needed major league starting experience.

I hope Pettitte does well and helps lead the Yankees to the post season. But the odds are not great for similar success he had in 2010, and if he does not perform well, things could get ugly quickly for the Yankees and one of their icons.

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The Boston Red Sox Decline Was Accurately Predicted Before Last Season

May 11, 2012

Back in December 2010, I wrote this piece  indicating the Boston Red Sox were “trying to keep up with the Joneses” ie: the New York Yankees, when they traded for then San Diego Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

The premise behind the story was that the Red Sox didn’t have the kind of money the Yankees have, and they would likely fall the way of the old Soviet Union if they tried to keep up with the Yankees in spending. Paying tons of money and trading young kids to win now over the Yankees would make the Red Sox worse in the long run when their farm system becomes incapable of producing new players to fill in for their aging stars when those stars suffered declines or get injured.

I was ripped twice as hard about this story as I was in my Jason Bay Would Be a Huge Mistake for the New York Mets piece I wrote a year earlier. And Mets fans really ripped for that piece.

But in both instances I was completely wrong.

It really didn’t take as long as I originally thought for both those thought processes to prove fatal for each team.

The Boston piece was more about their thoughts on trying to outspend the Yankees rather than actually getting Gonzalez, but by using their top prospects for trades and signing free agents to win now. The Yankees spent lavishly after not making the playoffs in 2008, inking CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and AJ Burnett to over $400 million, then promptly won the World Series in 2009.

The Sox thought having overpaid superstars at every position would help them, so in successive big name transactions they traded for Victor Martinez (during 2009) and Gonzalez, plus signed John Lackey (5/82.5), Mike Cameron (2/15.5), Carl Crawford (7/142), Bobby Jenks (2/12) and Marco Scutaro (3/17) to multi-year free agent contracts. Josh Beckett was also re-signed to a big extension  (4/68) prior to 2010.

And before all this, Daisuke Matsuzaka has cost the Sox over $110 million for one good season. He missed most of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Scutaro has since been traded but Lackey, Crawford and Jenks have all been hurt, Beckett was good last season until he started drinking beer (1-2, 5.48 ERA down the stretch), and has his own problems this season*. In addition, they are now paying Gonzalez $21 million over the next six seasons.

* I was at the Winter Meetings a few years ago and was speaking with someone who knew Beckett pretty well, and told me a few pretty intersting stories from his Florida Marlins days. Let’s just politley say that Beckett isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.

That is now $458 million to be paid out to five players (AGon, Beckett, Crawford, Jenks, Lackey) of which only one is now playing equal to what was expected. But did you also know that so far this season Gonzalez has the fewest number of extra base hits of any Red Sox starter with 100 or more plate appearances?

But, with all that outlay of cash and traded away young players) the Red Sox haven’t won a post season game since 2008. They haven’t even made the post season since 2009 where they were swept by the Los Angeles Angels in the ALDS. Martinez didn’t help them win in that series, did he?

Here is a direct quote from my Gonzalez piece: “...the Red Sox do have a set pitching staff entering 2011 with Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Beckett, Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Felix Doubront, who the Padres did not receive, is a very capable reserve starter.

That is it, though. There are no other starting pitchers in their higher up system who is any good. So the Red Sox have a top six with no others to complement them if there is an injury.”

They collapsed last season in September when they blew a nine game lead and most of that collapse centered on the lack of healthy and effective starting pitchers who could win just one game! Maybe Justin Masterson (traded for Victor Martinez) might have helped. Casey Kelly might have been good enough to come up from Double A and win one game. They also had some bullpen issues last year which Nick Hagadone (also traded for Martinez) might have helped. Hagadone is a hard-throwing lefty who has also been one of the Cleveland Indians best relievers this season with a 0.87 ERA, .484 WHIP and 8.7 K/9 ratio.

This year, under new manager Bobby Valentine, similar events are occurring to this organization, especially injuries and much ineffectiveness. Lackey is out for the season, Matsuzaka and Crawford have not played in 2012, Youkilis is hurt again (a nagging back injury), Jacoby Ellsbury is sidelined (again), and the starting pitching has been brutal.

Plus, in their quest to convert their top set up man Daniel Bard to the rotation, the two big arms looked on to fill the bullpens late innings, Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon, are both not with the team. Bailey has been hurt all year and Melancon (who I really like as a reliever) was ineffective early and shipped to Pawtucket. Similarly, the player they received for Theo Epstein, Chris Carpenter – another late inning reliever, is also disabled.

And you probably thought only the New York Yankees had miserable results with pitchers they traded for?

And like last season, there is not a lot in the Red Sox minor league system that can help now. Sure, Will Middlebrooks was brought in for Youkilis and has performed well (can I throw out a SSS here?) but not many of their other top prospects are remotely close to helping out in 2013, let alone this season. When Ellsbury went down, the Sox had to trade for an almost finished Marlon Byrd; when the bullpen needed help, they turn to Vicente Padilla and Andrew Miller, one of the failed starters from September 2011. 

Now, the Red Sox look to bolster their offense with the promotion of Daniel Nava. Lol.

I am not saying that trading for Gonzalez was a bad idea in and of itself. Obviously, he is a quality player who can consistently put up big time, MVP caliber number each season. But he is committed to the first base position for several years, until David Ortiz is gone and then AGon will likely move to DH.

But with all that money spent with no titles, no ready prospects to fill in when injuries occur, was it really wise to try and spend like the Yankees and lose young players at the same time? If the Red Sox let Anthony Rizzo play at Triple-A last season and then come up this year, would the Red Sox be any worse than they are now? Which, of course, is mired in last place, a full 7.5 games behind the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays.

Was it worth it to try and buy a title last season?

It is interesting that both teams the baseball pundits thought would be in the 2011 World Series, the Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies, didn’t even make that World Series and are mired in last place this season. Like the Sox, the Phillies lost key contributors Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, and after they traded many of their top prospects, they have no one to come up and contribute on offense. Plus, like the Sox situation with Crawford, the Phillies owe an already performance declining Howard over $100 million for next FIVE years.

But unlike the Red Sox, the Phillies do have a trio of tremendous starting pitchers in Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels.

Those teams which try to win every year by overpaying for talent eventually have problems when injuries and ineffectiveness occur. Too much money for very little return puts a damper on their current team and down the road when young kids are blocked by overpaid bums.

Most of the World Series championships won over the last 30 years have been won with home grown players who, when allowed to develop and contribute, provide their organization with quality value with quality play.  San Francisco won with their home grown starting pitching and Texas has been in the last two World Series with mostly young players who have come up through their system. Of course there are exceptions (like the 2009 Yankees), but these are exceptions and not the rule.

The Red Sox do have some promising kids in their system, but they are all down in the Low-A and High-A. It would behoove the Sox to allow these kids to develop and be ready for 2014 and beyond. Trading away any of these kids for an arm or big bat now will only continue the circle of idiocy. But one small issue like not being very good for a couple years might have to be stomached by Red Sox nation.

So, what to do? Let the kids play.

The Red Sox have an average age of over 30 for their team, way too old for the young game played today. The Sox need to get younger and use some of the tools they have in their system. The aformentioned Middlebrooks. Keep him in the lineup. Mike Aviles is a nice player, but is he your future at shortstop? You have a top prospect at Triple-A in Jose Iglesias. Why not let him play? From his days with the Texas Rangers and New York Mets, Bobby Valentine appears to work well with young players and wanted to have Iglesias as his starting shortstop at the beginning of the season, but was “overruled” by GM Ben Cherington. Ryan Lavarnway is a power hitting catcher who would fit nicely in Fenway Park.  

Time the change the attitude in the clubhouse.

When the Red Sox tried to win it all every year after year by obtaining Victor Martinez, John Lackey, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, costing themselves cost-controlled young talent and future draft picks, then re-signing the intelligently challenged Josh Beckett, the hierarchy put a process in place which could affect their ability to win over the next few years.

If I was a conspiracy theorist, I might believe that Theo Epstein, who conveniently left to become grand pooh-bah of the Chicago Cubs, did this on purpose.

My prediction of the Red Sox demise by not having quality young players to help in case of injuries to overpaid talent came to roost last season with no pitchers who could win a game down the stretch, and this downfall continues at the beginning of this season.

I am sorry Red Sox fans, but this case of Keeping up with the Joneses has pushed this team into pre-foreclosure status.


The New York Yankees are at a Crossroads

May 6, 2012

Well, the New York Yankees are at a crossroads.

And that was well before Mariano Rivera tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee.

I was talking with Mike on Saturday, saying how this Yankee team was in a serious situation. They have a veteran team, aging superstars and aging bench players. Guys right now are playing every day that weren’t signed this season to play every day.

An aging and expensive team in a young man’s game. And the team is only getting more aged and will be getting more expensive.

So, these Yankees are at that crossroads and there are several reasons for this.  

First, there are the exorbitant salaries paid to aging players whose careers are on a decline. You see the decline already. Alex Rodriguez and especially Mark Teixeira are in their decline phases of their careers, former top of the line talent now slowly sinking down the rope to the floor below.

I wrote about Teixiera here, saying if he doesn’t change his approach (not trying to pull every pitch), his carrer as we had known it is effectively over. And over and over again I see Alex beaten inside with moderate to advanced fastballs, indicating his bat speed is further slowing.

Two guys, who play the infield corners for the Yankees, earning a total of $51.5 million this year, are in slow to moderate declines. They are owed a combined $204 million over the next 4/5 years. I bet the Kansas City Royals wouldn’t trade their current infield corners, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer (who had all four RBI in last night’s game) for Alex and Teixeira, even if the Yankees paid upfront to the Royals all of Alex and Teixeira’s salaries for balance of their careers.

Second, there is the self-imposed salary cap of $189 million for 2014.

It is this number which the Yankees owners have said they want the team payroll to be in 2014. This number will allow the Yankees to avoid huge luxury tax monies required to be paid to MLB. Not that the Yankees couldn’t afford higher salaries and additional luxury tax monies. They could even get a rebate if they remain under that amount for 2015 also.

With the $78 million tied up in Alex, Teixeira, CC Sabathia and Derek Jeter ($8 million player option) for 2014, the Yankees would “only” approximately have $111 million available for 21 other players. And they still have to re-sign Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano to extensions likely to cost $15 million each on an annual basis. Then by 2014, players such as Joba Chamberlain, Brett Gardner, Phil Hughes, David Robertson, Eduardo Nunez and Ivan Nova will all be eligible for arbitration or will be locked up for “below market” multi-year contracts.

That’s a lot of players important to the roster who will be making mucho more cash.

Third, the Yankees will very likely lose Russell Martin and Nick Swisher to free agency after this year. During every long Yankee run of titles, the team has a high quality catcher and right fielder. The Yankees have had such a history at catcher with Wally Schang (an OBP machine), Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada. In right field they had Babe Ruth, Bob Muesel, Tommy Henrich, Hank Bauer, Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson and Paul O’Neill. But now, two important starters in highly Yankee-fabric positions of catcher and right fielder need to be replaced.

Both Martin and Swisher will likely command three year deals for $8-12 million per year. That might be too rich even for the 1% Yankees.

These open spots lead to the fourth reason the Yankees are at a severe crossroads. They have a severe lack of quality position player depth at their higher levels of the system. They have ZERO, repeat ZERO help on the way to fill any open starting position players for at least the next two seasons.

And I hope you aren’t saying to yourself, what about Zoilo Almonte, who impressed the spring training? Well, he wasn’t that good the first time playing at Double A, and it is a stretch to see him seriously contributing at the major league level until at least 2015. Other strong players such as Austin Romine (remember him?), David Adams, are always hurt, with Romine having chronic back issues. That isn’t good for a major league starting catcher.

All the other position players are three years away, and with the Yankees patient nature in developing young players, it may be even longer.

Yankee fans are now suffering through injuries, lack of production and, even though the playoffs were expanded, a feeling that they just might not be strong enough to make this postseason, let alone make a run to the World Series. New York fans, in particular most Yankee fans, have what have you done for me now relationship with their players.

Many have written that maybe the Yankees should have traded Gardner before last season when his value was highest; saying his success in 2010 was never going to be improved upon. But now they miss his OBP skills, speed and quality defense on an everyday basis.

After Swisher struggled again last October, almost all Yankee fans wanted to trade Swisher this past off season. But you see how Swisher and Gardner are very important to the Yankee lineup. Along with Jeter, they are the only two Yankee hitters who consistently go the away with pitches, opening up the field and therefore, getting more hits.

Now these same Yankee fans seriously wish both could come back from their injuries quickly. The New York fans love to react to those small sample sizes.

What the Yankees have done by playing the Ponzi scheme method of long term deals to players who are now aged and much less productive is coming home to roost. There is now dead money for guys, who aren’t producing up to their salary levels, will continue to decline and because of their salaries, would be blocking any young players the organization might have developed.

So, what to do?

The Yankees could continue with what they have always done and go with the veteran presence at most positions, eschewing young talent in their system and paying big dollars to players who are getting older, and will decline over time.

Let’s all admit it right now; the 2009 World Series title was bought with shelling out over $400 million to Sabathia, Teixeira and AJ Burnett. It sucks that the rules were changed in the middle of playing the game, and the luxury tax threshold was inserted. But that is the hand you are currently being dealt. Try to think of it as the Turn card in Texas Hold ‘Em improving the odds for your opponents.

The key for any team is to constantly work in young players with established veterans, letting certain veterans go free agent when they have kids ready for the majors. But the Yankees have not produced enough young players or given them a serious chance before pulling them, benching them or having fans ridicule them every time they make a mistake (like Nunez).

I say continue with letting David Phelps get starts, let Robertson now close and bring up another reliever (Chase Whitley) if they need a one inning type arm. I wrote about Whitley here. Since there isn’t a great need in the bullpen even with Mariano out, let Phil Hughes continue to start and get his innings in and see what you have over a full season.

You really don’t know what Hughes can do. Let the guy throw the ball as a starting pitcher. Starting pitching is the largest annual expense for teams, especially if you have to go out on the free agent market and attempt to sign a Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke type starter. Except for a game here and there, Hughes can barely make it out of the fifth inning most games because that he what he is used to throwing. That is the way he has been developed. Hughes has made 77 career starts and pitched 7+ innings only 13 times, most recently in his last start when Joe Girardi finally let Hughes throw 115 pitches, only the second time he has reached this plateau in his career.

In regards to the veterans on the team, offer Cano and Granderson semi-long deal of 4-5 years at $15 million each. First one to take it gets his money, the other needs to re-evaluate. With the self-imposed $189 million payroll, this is more important than ever. You can’t let a player dictate what the team can afford.

But if the Yankee brass decides they can withstand higher salariesand go over the $189 million threshhold, all bets are off. Sign away and watch the aging team get even older. The only way the Yankees survive is letting their kids play and develop. You know how the other way works now.

They might not make the postseason each and every year via development, but then again, this 2012 team is no lock right now either.


David Phelps Should NOT Be Just a Short Term Solution

May 1, 2012

I was in the midst of writing a “Girardi Needs to Yank Garcia from the Rotation” piece when the Yankees announced Sunday that Freddy Garcia is being removed from the rotation. He will not make his next scheduled start and will remain as the mop up guy* in the bullpen.

  • As opposed to the 9th inning guy (Rivera), the 8th inning guy (Robertson), the 7th inning guy (Soriano), the 6th inning guy (Wade/Logan), the LOOGY (Rapada), and multi-inning guy (Logan/Wade).

In a related transaction, Triple-A starting pitcher D.J. Mitchell, who many feel could be a good, multi-inning reliever, has been promoted with Cody Eppley, who has thrown well since he was recalled last week, was sent down to make room for Mitchell. Since Eppley threw 3 innings yesterday, he was likely not available today or tomorrow, and with Phelps also not likely available due to his three inning stint yesterday, he wasn’t available either.

They still have 13 pitchers on their 25 man roster. That is at least one too many.

With Cory Wade and now Garcia in the bullpen, why the need for Mitchell right now? Did Girardi expect CC Sabathia to get knocked around early today?

The bringing up of Mitchell told me that he will not be the starting pitcher the next Thursday (Garcia’s next scheduled start). And after the game we hear that Phelps will indeed start in Garcia’s stead.

That is a great move, with Phelps GETTING a role in the Yankees starting rotation is long overdue.

I say getting because the way the Yankees have developed their own starting pitching (not good) with ways most other successful teams do develop starting pitching (pretty good) is completely different.

The Yankees force their young pitchers to pitch well in the minor leagues, and then pitch extremely well in spring training to “earn” your spot. After you “earn” your spot, then a Yankee pitching prospect needs to pitch like an ace right off the bat to keep that rotation spot. Then that kid has to pitch well again the NEXT spring training to keep that spot.

What other team (besides the Yank-Mees) in their right mind would force a 16 game winner in the prior season to have to EARN a spot in the rotation for the next season the way the Yankees made Ivan Nova do this spring training. There was serious talk in late March of Nova being sent to minor leagues after his sub-par spring training. The minor leagues! Ship out a kid who won 16 games last year, with an ERA well below 4.00.

And all that might not even get you a sniff of the major leagues, since the Yankees are always seeking to “improve” their rotation each year with the biggest name free agent available.

Teams like the Tampa Bay Rays develop their pitchers. Each of their current starting pitchers were brought up in the middle (or end) of their first major league season to start games when the Rays needed them.  Then that guy was inserted into the starting rotation for the next season, and in several instances veteran starters were traded away to allow these kids that opportunity. Guys like Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson and Jason Hammel (who seems to have turned his career around) were shipped out to allow new starters an opportunity.

Same thing has been done in San Francisco and Texas.

So after a career minor league record of 38-15, 2.61 ERA, Phelps has now been granted an opportunity to start a major league baseball game, AFTER he had to “earn” that spot this spring training to get on the major league roster. I have written about Phelps many times before, most recently here but now people are finally realizing this kid is pretty good.

http://nybaseballdigest.com/2012/03/05/david-phelps-impresses-on-the-mound-what-else-is-new/

He throws strikes with four pitches, moves the ball nicely around the zone and can blow the ball by hitters when he needs to.

However, despite his four quality appearances out of the bullpen, he also had two outings where he allowed three earned runs in each. It was in these two games which Phelps has given up three of his four home runs allowed. In fact, five of his seven runs allowed have been caused by the four long balls.

I am sure that has really destroyed that precious xFIP.

It is these two outings which has many in the blogosphere very nervous. Let me break down these two appearances.

In the Boston game on April 21st, Phelps allowed six hits, three ERs while walking one in four innings. His ERA for that game (6.75) is less than Phil Hughes ERA of 7.88 this season and well below Garcia’s. This game saw Phelps give up a bunch of ground ball singles, a double and a two-run home run to Cody Ross, who he had whiffed in a prior at bat. He also retired Adrian Gonzalez twice including getting him to hit into a double play.

I guess Phelps was just lucky on that grounder.

Anyway, he was ahead of most of the hitters that game as he was in the Texas game. But in the Texas game, Phelps allowed two solo home runs, three walks (2 IBB) in 2.1 innings. He threw good pitches which were hit out, a 1-1 up and in fastball to Mitch Moreland, and a 0-2 low and away fastball to Mike Napoli. Both pitches weren’t exactly where they were supposed to be, but weren’t great fat pitches to hit either. I actually thought he should have bounced a curve ball to Napoli 0-2 after getting ahead on two straight fastballs.

There are times when a pitcher can make the most perfect pitch (and up and in and low and away fastballs are two great pitches), but if a hitter is looking for a particular pitch they can still hit it very hard. That is why it is imperative to get ahead (which Phelps consistently does), which forces many hitters to expand the strike zone.

I am not making excuses for Phelps, but despite two “bad” outings, he didn’t pitch as bad as the numbers suggest.

I saw Phelps throw in his last outing. He moved the ball in and out; throwing the ball very well against a pretty good lineup. Just ask Garcia, he’ll agree. Phelps jammed Miguel Cabrera on and inside fastball on the black and had Prince Fielder pout in front on an outside curveball, which induced the slugger to bounce into a double play. He threw a 3-1 changeup to get Phelps also set up Austin Jackson like he was a little leaguer, striking AJax out on three pitches, finishing him off with a high fastball which Jackson swung through.

It is not practical for the Yankees to not have another young arm in the rotation. Most successful teams continue to produce solid starting pitching, many of whom are not even first round pick. And if the Yankees feel they will sign Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke next year for contracts well over $100 million (the way Hamels is throwing, he might command near $200 million), then they are nuts. As a west coast guy, if Hamels did become a free agent, he will never sign with the Yankees. And after the crap Michael Pineda endured this spring training, Greinke will run far away from the Bronx.

Who else is a possible free agent? A Joe Blanton, Kyle Lohse or Brandon McCarthy? Please.

And what type of Mat Latos or Gio Gonzalez deal are you going to swing now since your biggest trade chip, Jesus Montero, was shipped out to Seattle?

There is a great strong chance Hiroki Kuroda and/or Andy Pettitte will not be around next season due to cost (Kuroda) and effectiveness (Pettitte). And will Phil Hughes begin to fulfill all his promise as a starting pitcher and become a fixture in the Yankee rotation?

The best situation for the Yankees is to develop and use another pitcher from their system in their starting rotation. And that doesn’t include a rehash of the 40 year old Andy Pettitte. Ivan Nova has proven he belongs, and it is time for the Yankees to allow Phelps a similar opportunity. He has been their best minor league starting pitcher since he has entered their system. 

If the choice is between a 25 year old David Phelps with a four pitch arsenal to both sides of the plate or a 40 year old Andy Pettitte who can barely break 86 MPH, and from what I have seen and heard throws many his pitches over the middle of the plate, the choice is very easy.

Phelps has shown he can get out many of the game’s best hitters, and has the composure, confidence and repertoire to succeed at this level. There is no reason why he shouldn’t be GIVEN the balance of starts this season.

David Phelps needs to not be a short term stop gap and become part of the long term solution.


New York Yankee Minor League Report – Trenton Thunder (Shaeffer Hall, Christian Garcia)

April 24, 2012

I made a trip out to Trenton this past Saturday for a rare 5:05 start to watch the Thunder play host to the Washington Nationals Double-A affiliate, Harrisburg Senators.

Some seasons have seen Thunder manager Tony Franklin blessed with tremendous pitching staffs with zero hitting, and other seasons have seen him write in a tremendous lineup while wondering if his pitchers can limit the opposition to single digits.

This year he has both hitting and pitching somewhere in the middle.

On the mound for the Thunder was left hander Shaeffer Hall.

As a 25th round draft pick out of Kansas, Hall appeared nothing more than a sturdy arm for the organization. But I saw him throw two years ago in Charleston and Tampa and saw a pitcher with pretty good control and command, with pitching smarts to know how to attack hitters.

This pitching intelligence is much needed as Hall doesn’t throw overly hard. He was usually 88-89 in 2010, but was pretty much 84-86 all day long on Saturday. However, he is in his second season of throwing a cutter (with slider tilt and movement), which he can get in on the hands of right handed hitters.

It was this pitch and his changeup which kept hitters off balance and grounding the ball towards the extremely organizational infield the Thunder put out that day.

Hall is a pitcher who relies on changing speeds and location. He needs an umpire to give him the calls on the corners, then can work from there to expand the zone and get batters to chase pitches. This requires him to constantly get ahead and stay ahead of the hitter, which is always a good thing. If Hall gets an umpire with a tight zone, he has to come over the plate more and his stuff likely will not translate to quality outings.

A perfect example is when Hall tried to come inside to Jeff Kobernus, the Senators second baseman. Kobernus just missed powering two balls out of spacious Waterfront Park, but each drive was held up by a stiff wind, which allowed both deep drives to fall harmlessly into the glove of the Thunder left fielder.

Hall is a nice kid but his style doesn’t appear to be what the Yankees hierarchy likes in their starting pitchers. With injuries and ineffectiveness to hard throwers like Michael Pineda, Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos and the 2011 released Andrew Brackman, maybe the Yankees should change their preferences to pitchers rather than throwers.

The Yankees also let Francisco Rondon throw the final inning, and he allowed a deep drive home run to center by Senators LF Chris Rahl (who had 3 RBI & was a double short of the cycle). Rondon was fluid with a fastball with some life, usually 89-91, and hit 93. He showed a pretty good slider (82-83), which he wasn’t able to control and a decent changeup, but which had a tendency to stay up.

Rondon has been in the organization since 2006 and has become less hittable as he has moved up, but also shown an increased inability to throw strikes. The way teams can always use hard throwing left handed relievers, Rondon has a chance to progress further but need to trust his stuff more.

Luke Murton has three hits on the day, but showed total pull tendencies, similar to what I saw in Charleston in 2010. His swing is mostly arms and upper body, barely using his lower half. I saw him reach for quite a few pitches during the day, out front but still put the good part of the bat on the ball indicating pretty good hand-eye coordination. He is a hard worker who is constantly working in the cage and oftentimes off a tee just minutes before a game, and has the personality and build of former Yankee Shelley Duncan.

Cody Johnson was a former first round pick for the Atlanta Braves in 2006 and came to the Yankees in a minor league trade. He had shown a tremendous ability in the past to swing and miss*, and this was attributed to a severe hitch which caused him to not get around on good fastballs. He also was susceptible on breaking stuff, especially when behind in the count. However, he has eliminated the hitch by keeping his hands really low, behind his back hip. They do come up slightly during his load, but not that much higher. This keeps Johnson’s path to the ball much quicker allowing him to wait longer on pitch recognition.

*Johnson’s strikeout rate has increased each season as a pro, going from 34% in 2008, to 35% in 2009, 39% in 2010 to 41% last year.

In one at bat, Johnson basically flicked his wrists the way Rod Carew used to for a nice line drive single to left center. In two other at bats, Johnson showed good power to left field (going with the pitch) putting balls to the warning track, one which likely would have been out for a booming homer if not for the strong wind blowing in.

He does hit the ball very hard when he makes contact, and with his new hand placement he has made better contact. I still believe better fastballs will eat him up inside (he was never tested inside during this game), but with his changes and improved contact rate (30% K rate thus far) while still hitting for power, he is someone to keep an eye on.

Zoilo Almonte, the 22 year old switch hitting outfielder who impressed Joe Girardi in spring training, is on the disable list and did not play. I saw him last year and he appeared overmatched in the couple games I saw. But, a la Brett Gardner, Zoilo does have a track record of struggling at a level when first promoted, then improving considerably when he returns to start at that same level the following year. 

The Senators had a few guys impress who I had not seen before. The aforementioned Kobernus, a second baseman is very quick to the ball. He stands very quiet at the plate until he unleashes a very quick swing, going direct to the ball. His swing has some loft which provided nice backspin. As I said earlier, he would have had two long home runs if not for the wind.  He also showed pretty good speed down the line on a ground ball. At same body type (6-2, 210 or so), the position he plays, and the fact they attended the same school (Cal), Kobernus reminds me of Jeff Kent. He might not hit with the power Kent developed but Kobernus can hit the ball, which will be his ticket to the higher levels.

Destin Hood is a former second round pick for the Nationals, one of those highly athletic “toolsy” guys who never seem to work out because they really don’t become baseball players. They don’t develop the instincts and work ethic to improve and advance beyond just playing the game. Hood has changed for the better since I saw him last in 2010 in the Low-A Sally League. Hood showed great bat speed and foot speed, easily beating out a slow roller to third base, and easily scored from first on ground ball down the left field line.

In his second at bat, Hood got behind two strikes, but calmly stayed off a cutter low and in from Hall. While Hood eventually struck out a better version of that pitch, he was on the ball with a good swing. Hood is aggressive at the plate, but has shown an improved ability to attack better pitches and to stay away from off speed stuff out of the zone.

That is a good combination.

The right hander who closed the game out in the Senators 4-01 win was former Trenton Thunder pitcher Christian Garcia. The tall right hander was one of the Yankees top starting pitching prospects a few years ago, but injuries (two Tommy John surgeries) and a lack of desire to work hard hampered his career. He is back now as a reliever, and now healthy, continues to possess a tremendous repertoire including an easy fastball at 93-94, moving it easily around the zone. I remember a few years ago that Garcia had a tendency to sometimes overthrow his fastball (maybe why he was always injured?), but it was no longer the case – at least in this game. He also threw a solid hook and plus, plus major league quality change up.

The change up has always been Garcia’s out pitch, and he uses it extensively, playing is very nicely off his solid fastball keeping his arm speed the same on both pitches. Both his strikeouts this game came on change ups, making the Thunder hitters look foolish. According to a couple Senators players, Garcia has been tremendous all season, with his changeup getting swings and misses on most occasions. It is a pitch which doesn’t necessarily need to stay down to be effective, as it is almost impossible to recognize early. I asked about his desire and work ethic (not his strong suit in his Yankee career), and both said they have not seen any slacking on his work habits.

Garcia showed good bite and downward action on his curveball, a plus pitch which he appears now to throw in basically offering something else to the hitter. Garcia was very popular when he played in Trenton, and many of the locals were glad to see him back healthy and performing well.

If he stays healthy Garcia could move quickly towards a bullpen spot with the major league club.


If Mark Teixeira Doesn’t Change His HItting Approach, His Career As We Know It Could Be Over

April 14, 2012

After their 0-3 start to the 2012 season, the New York Yankees have now won four straight and are tied for first place in the AL East. These wins happened even without the expected quality pitching of ace CC Sabathia (he of the new five-year, $122 million extension), and without any production from middle of the order hitters Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira.

Robbie will come around soon as he adjusts his pull now/roll his wrists over approach, but it is Teixeira’s lack of production which should be very worrisome to Yankee fans. I will get it out quickly:

If Teixeira does not change his approach to hitting, his career is finished.

Oh, he will still be playing first base for the Yankees, but his usually offensive production will significantly decline. And that massive contract won’t be looking so good anymore. His playing time will be based upon his contract and defense, and less upon his ability to hit.

And this is not some random “small sample size” garbage either. Teixeira has been on the down slope since he signed with the Yankees, especially in the areas of batting average* (ooh, that terrible stat), and on base percentage* (the really good stat, right?).

*It’s funny how many sabermetric guys discount batting average and how it is “meaningless.” But doesn’t batting average compose the largest portion of hitters’ on base percentage? Usually, when formerly productive hitters OBP declines, it is usually due to a lower batting average, rather than walk rates, which are pretty consistent for established major leaguers. But if players become LESS FEARED by the opposition, then pitchers will attack these hitters and his avearge and walks will both decline.

Teixeira’s decline actually began during the World Series title year of 2009, a title which Teixeira was a big part. His batting average has declined from .292 in 2009 to .256 in 2010 and .249 last season. Subsequently, his OBP have been .383 (2009), .365 (2010) and .343 last season. He hit over .300 with a .400 OBP the prior two years, so the decline did start in 2009. Teixeira’s walk average** is consistently around .090. His slugging percentage shave also dropped, with his last two seasons being the only years since his rookie campaign where Teixeira has not slugged over .500.

**This is calculated by subtracting batting average from OBP.

Currently, Tex is hitting a meager .179, with a Yuniesky Betancourt like .303 OBP and ONE RBI!

It is unbelievable that the Yankees No. 5 hitter, who hits behind Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter, has ZERO home runs, one RBI.  That one RBI, though, is the key to his future.

Everybody is saying “Don’t worry, he’ll be fine. At the end, the numbers will be the same.”

No they won’t. Not if Teixeira doesn’t change his approach.

Teixeira has always been an upper body hitter. He collapses his back side and opens his hips early, but rarely uses his legs to generate power, relying on his bat speed and upper body strength. The result is an off balance swing using only his arms. That upper body strength allows Tex to overpower balls, even if he tries to pull outside pitches. I have viewed dozens of Teixeira home runs over his career where he pulled a pitch on the outside corner into the seats.

That is not easy to do.

But now that Teixeira is 32 years old (didn’t think he was that old, did you?), his bat speed has slightly declined and those pitches his used to be able to “rip” over the fence are now harmless fly balls to the outfield. That is if he actually gets under the ball.

See, most times when a hitters tries to pull an outside pitch, whether the hitter is fooled by an off speed pitch or, like Teixeira, they try and pull everything, seven times out of ten the hitter will roll his wrists over and generate a harmless ground ball to the pull side. If they do get under it somewhat, the result usually is a harmless fly ball or popup.

It’s an easy out.

Also, when a hitter attempts to pull an outside pitch, the hitter’s arms fly away from the body, limiting the chance for the legs to come into play. Remember when you used to hear, “The hitter wants to extend his arms?” and “the pitcher is throwing inside so the hitter can’t extend his arms.” That is a misnomer.

A good hitter DOESN’T want to extend his arms away from the body, at least not until well after impact. Good hitters want to keep his elbows tight to the body, which helps allow them to use their legs to help generate power. The extension of arms actually comes after the ball is struck and the bat comes through the hitting zone, and is extended towards the pitcher, not by pulling off the ball.

For an analogy, think in terms of power while lifiting weights. If you are doing dumbbell or barbell curls, can you left more wight when your elbows are tight to your body or when they are extended away by 6-12 inches?

Perfect example of this is Robinson Cano, who keeps his elbows tight to his body. This is how Cano can hit lefties so well, especially pitches inside. Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols also keep their hands in tight to the body, and all three use the strength in their legs to complete the swing and generate power.

Over the years, however, Teixeira has gotten away with bad hitting mechanics and used his uncanny eye-hand coordination and immense strength to hit for average and power, including 111 home runs in three plus years as a Yankee.

But those days are likely over.

Teixeira has always been a pull hitter. When he collapses his back side like that, there is no other type of hitter to be. You can’t collapse your back side and hit the ball the other way with any authority. Try hitting off a batting tee the other way after you collapse your back leg. It’s virtually impossible.

Really good hitters use the entire field, but at the very minimum, on pitches out over the plate and on the outer third, they try and hit the ball through the middle. They wait a little longer on the pitch, and then drive the ball through the middle. The only time Teixeira did that this season, he generated a line drive RBI single to right center in Baltimore, his only RBI. Tex stayed balanced in his swing, waited and drove the ball the other way.

When Teixeira tries to pull outside pitches, especially as a left-handed hitter, he hits “outside the ball,” where his arms come away from the body and the ball is struck. The hands are not used properly, but go out and around. Good hitting mechanics require the hands to say “inside the ball,” where the hands lead the bat straight and down to (and through) the ball. Wait and be quick.

When the hands go out and around, the hitter is susceptible to “rolling over” his wrists, lessening the time the hitter has the bat head in the hitting zone. As I mentioned earlier, the result is usually a ground ball to the pull side.

And when teams shift on a hitter, the results can be disastrous. The game is different now. Everything is on video and computers, with every team using spray charts and extensive advanced scouting. If you pitch certain hitters a certain way, that hitter will almost always hit the ball in the same spot***.

***I remember a time when I was managing in a college level and above men’s league in North Jersey. I used to go “scout” other teams when we didn’t have a game. There was a right-handed hitter on one team who I noticed always hit rockets into the right center gap when he swung at up and away fastballs. Nothing but line drives to right center. Know what we did? We gave him what he liked. We threw him fastballs up and away, the pitch he looked for and liked. But we also pinched our center and right fielder into the right center gap, and caught all those line drives he hit there. Oh, we would throw him “waste” pitches to change things up, but when we wanted to retire him, we did. He said to me after one game, “Man, I never seem to get any breaks against you guys.” No being lucky, but playing smart baseball. Point is that hitters are creatures of habit, who usually do with certain pitches what they always do.

Hitters need to adapt to how teams play them. Mark Teixeira needs to adapt to how the Tampa Bay Rays and other teams play him. Tex needs to begin to hit the ball the other way, by waiting a little longer on the outside pitch and begin to drive it the other way. That means eliminating the backside collapse, and hitting balls the other way. After a while of that, teams will have to move out of their shifts, which open up the entire field for Tex.

Tex will continue to be pitched outside, and if he doesn’t change his approach, he will continue to hit ground balls and some lines drives into the teeth of the defense. His averages will then continue to decline.

It is tough for major league hitters to adjust, especially if they are as established as Teixeira, but in his case is imperative that it gets done. It is obvious Tex doesn’t put much time into hitting sessions with Kevin Long, as Tex would have already eliminated the back side collapse, begun keep his hands inside the ball and using his legs more.

Recently, I used a drill for a left-handed high school hitter who had the same problem Teixeira has. He hands moved away from his body and he hit around the ball. I can’t even tell you how many times he grounded out to second base. We set up an L-screen about 15 -20 feet away and I quick flipped balls underhand to him on the inside half of the plate. But I had him hit the ball right back at me or the other way. No pulling of any pitches. This forced the hitter to bring his hands and elbows inside closer to his body in order to try and hit the ball the other way. It begins to help you get quicker to the ball on inside pitches.

After some time with this drill, the next game saw the kid line a shot right at the first baseman, then triple over the left fielders head in his next at bat. Both at bats prior his drill work would have likely ended up with a weak pop up and a weak ground ball to the second baseman.

This (and other drills) would work for Teixeira, too, but only if he wishes to change his approach.  

There have been many hitters who have been successful without using good hitting mechanics. I can’t even believe all the major league hitters who fail to use their lower half when hitting. Lance Berkman had a HOF caliber career, but never used his lower half until he came to the Yankees in 2010. George Brett was very successful using another formerly popular hitting method. It is a testament to these players overwhelming ability to hit at that level doing what they did.

I know Teixeira has had a pretty darn good career thus far, with 314 home runs and 1,108 RBI. But if he doesn’t begin to change, he will not be adding to these totals like he has in the past. Batting average, OBP, slugging percentage, home runs and RBI will all decline. Do you realize that Tex only had 26 doubles last year, the lowest of his career?

If he doesn’t work to change things, Tex will still get his big hits, and will likely hit 20 homers solely based upon his strength. He will do this when pitchers make mistakes with their location and get the ball over the middle of the plate. But when they stay outside, Tex will continue to watch his BABIP erode.

I predicted demise for another New York corner infielder two years ago, when I wrote this piece about David Wright and how he shied away from inside pitches after getting hit in the head by a Matt Cain fastball. I said that if Wright was forever shying away, then his career would be over as pitchers would bust him in early then get him out away. But Wright improved his ability to stay in the box and once again he became fearless at the plate.

I just hope for Yankee fans that Teixeira can adjust his approach like Wright did and stay productive long term.


What Does Andy Pettitte’s Return Mean for Young Pitchers in the New York Yankee Organization?

March 21, 2012

Andy Pettitte returned to the New York Yankees spring training camp today, this time for keeps. He will throw batting practice and bullpens again, but throwing pitches with conviction and intent. All reports indicate Andy’s bullpen session on Tuesday went better than expected.

Pettitte is once again a New York Yankee starting pitcher.

And his impact is immediate. The same day Pettitte was back in Yankee camp, pitchers David Phelps, D.J. Mitchell and George Kontos all were optioned to Triple-A Rochester. Three for one! And after the home run hit by Andrew McCutchen off of Michael Pineda last night and Ivan Nova’s latest start, more kids might be on the way to the minor leagues. Although Pineda redeemed himself by finishing strong AND upping his velocity, having Pettitte around now is not good news for any of the kids.

Such is always the case with young pitchers in Yankee-land. Never any patience with one bad start, even if it is only spring training. I once wrote a piece stating that the worst place for a young Yankee pitcher is being on their 40-man roster*.   Once a kid is buried there, they never get that opportunity until they are traded away.

  • It is very interesting that when I wrote that piece three years ago, it was because the Yankees signed a free agent pitcher on January 26, 2009 who took over the 5th rotation spot and would end up sending Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy to Triple-A. That free agent pitcher was Andy Pettitte, who is doing the same thing to the Yankee kid pitchers this season. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Why does Pettitte continue to hurt the chances of young Yankee pitchers, this time the chances of Nova and Pineda, and once again Phil Hughes? It is like Andy wants to be the last successful Yankee home grown starting pitcher.

No matter what you believe regarding Pettitte’s return, he is back and is expected to compete for a starting pitching spot no later than May.

That would be a mistake.

Pettitte and Russell Martin might think Andy will be ready for a major league rotation by May, but the best thing for the Yankees is waiting until after the All-Star break to let Pettitte pitch in games which count. The Yankees need to finally find out what they have with their young guns, especially the new and improved Hughes. Plus, Pettitte was not signed by the Yankees for starts in May and June, but for key starts in October.

With 19 overall victories, Pettitte is the most winning pitcher in post season history. His impressive October record over his last two seasons (2009-2010) of 5-1, 3.23 ERA, 1.076 WHIP, 2.83 K/BB is better than any starting pitcher currently with the Yankees. Better than CC Sabathia (5-1, 3.54 ERA, 1.541 WHIP, 2.42 K/BB) better than Nova, better than Hughes and even better than AJ…oh, wait, no need for his numbers anymore. Hideki Kuroda has mixed results, having two nice starts, but getting bombed (1.1 IP, 6 ER) in his third. Pineda has yet to pitch in the postseason, but that is surely a small sample size.

The Yankees need to see if Pettitte is healthy enough to start and go for a full season, a feat Andy has not done since 2009. Even during his fine 2010 season, Pettitte only made 21 starts. His prior two full seasons of 2008 and 2009, Pettitte was barely above league average. He was a combined 28-22, 4.35 ERA (an ERA+ of only 98 in 2009!), with a 1.400 WHIP over those last two full seasons.

However, he was mostly spectacular during the post season those two seasons, and thus the reason for his signing.

Is Pettitte the future of a Yankees starting rotation? Is he prepared to play this one season only as an ego boost, or is he planning to pitch in 2013 or even 2014? Is this about boosting his chances for the Hall of Fame?

With six current starting pitchers and at least three more ready at Triple A, Pettitte knows of his postseason success and why the Yankees want him. It is not May rotation depth. It is October rotation depth. Who knows how the Yankees pitching will shake out this season? In mid-May of last year, who would have thought that Nova would be the No. 2 starting pitcher in the ALDS?

Instead of coming back mid-season (like his former pal Roger Clemens did), Pettitte is coming back early in the season, and why I believe Pettitte would want to pitch more that this season, for the sake of his legacy. If it was just about the post season, Pettitte could have waited until May or June to announce, and take a month to be ready for a post All-Star break start. That would also have given the Yankees a half season to evaluate their young kids such as Pineda, Nova and Hughes.

And that is what is baffling about the Yankees signing Pettitte so early and wanting to use him so early in the season. His last two full seasons were league average. That is something the three major league 25-and-under-guys could do, too. And probably even Phelps, Mitchell and Adam Warren. Are the Yankees getting the Andy of 2010 and the 2009-2010 postseason, or the Andy of the 2008-2009 regular seasons?

If Andy pitches league average and has a so-so postseason, then would the Yankees sign him again for next season? There are tons of variables here, many of which affect the Yankees in 2014, the season which they want to get under the $189 million luxury tax threshold. This means the Yankees, who have almost $80 million tied up with four guys in 2014 (CC, Alex, Tex, Jeter), and need to re-sign Robinson Cano and/or Curtis Granderson, Russell Martin plus lots of potential free agent pitchers like Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, Mariano (?) and Hughes. Not to mention arbitration guys like Gardner, Nova and Pineda at that time.

The Yankees would need to see if a couple of these young starting pitchers can do the job long term. They need to find out if Nova, Pineda, Hughes or even the Triple-A kids can get the job done at the major league level. This would help alleviate the need to chase down free agent pitchers on the open market and keep the payroll somewhat near the $189 million mark.

This season would have been a great year to find out if the young kids like Nova, Pineda and Hughes can produce, but the Pettitte signing (just like before the 2009 season) eliminates lots of opportunities for the minor league kids, and possibly the three major league guys, too. Young kids like Phelps (who I feel is similar to Mike Mussina, as was Ian Kennedy), Mitchell or Warren could be traded this year. With the Pettitte signing, most pundits believe Freddy Garcia is the major league odd man out of the rotation spot, and possibly the roster.

I disagree. That person is likely Phil Hughes.

All the shenanigans with Hughes such as the injuries, starting vs. relieving, the 2011 dead arm crap and the constant media pressure of needing to pitch great every game, Hughes is not long for the Yankees. The former first round pick and Yankee savior will definitely be gone when his free agency comes, likely to a more secure environment where a team can just let him pitch. So with a logjam at starting pitcher and the threat early in spring of a minor league demotion (options left, anyone?) or bullpen role again, Hughes is probably already thinking back to the West coast, where he was raised.

With his newfound workout regimen having him looking good in camp, Hughes (and not Garcia) would bring the best value in a potential trade. In addition, Garcia was brought aboard in 2012 to help foster Nova’s second season, a role he admirably performed last year. Freddy also is likely now helping with Pineda, who is overwhelmed by the constant N.Y. media hordes.

If Hughes is doing well early in 2012, I would not be surprised if Hughes was dealt by the All-Star break. With the spring struggles of Raul Ibanez, there is also a real possibility Hughes could headline a package for a bat before the season starts. How about Hughes and Dellin Betances (plus another guy) to Kansas City for Alex Gordon? Or perhaps to the San Francisco Giants as part of a deal for Brandon Belt, who I believe is a very special hitter.

A few weeks ago Brian Cashman said that Hughes “has No. 1 starter potential.” Coupled with a strong start to his 2012 season, Hughes could be like Jesus Montero. A player gets a rave review by the GM, a small sample size period of success, and then traded from a position of strength for an immediate need.

Who knew Andy Pettitte had that much power to limit young pitching…again.