Can Phil Hughes Get Healthy? The Yankees May Depend on It


The silence which accompanied the news that Phil Hughes may not be be ready to start the season after suffering another back injury in spring training is foreboding, to say the least.

The Yankees, quite sensibly, want to give Hughes time to get the bulging disc in his upper back healed rather than risk losing him for a sizable part or possibly all of the season. Joe Girardi said yesterday, “Is it in jeopardy, his start? It’s possible. But it’s too early to tell that.” Translated from Manager-ese into English, that means: “We’re not expecting much from Phil this year.”

How sad. It’s looking more and more in Hughes’ case as if a brilliant future is behind him. A few years ago we were watching this guy’s wind-up, comparing his mechanics to Roger Clemens, and calling him “The Pocket Rocket.” Now his career is beginning to resemble a rocket launched by North Korea.

All we’ve talked about since Hughes’ debut in 2007 is how much potential he had, and because of a body that’s more brittle than Joan Rivers’ face, we’ve never had much else to talk about except his potential. His career ERA is just 4.39; he’s started 103 games but has only averaged 6.2 innings per start. (You might recall that last season when I was in a bad mood, I kept referring to him as “Four-Inning Phil.”) He’s given up just about a hit per inning, though his strikeouts-to-innings- pitched – 535 Ks to 635 innings – isn’t bad. Overall his won-lost record, 52-36, is a little less impressive than it should be given his bat support.

One of Hughes’ big problems has always been a lack of arm strength — you could practically see him wilt in front of your eyes at the start of the fourth or fifth inning — and as Ron Guidry once told me, “You can’t build up arm strength while you’re re-habbing.”
This is it for Phil. If he isn’t back in shape to pitch sometime in April, it’s doubtful that the Yankees are going to have much faith in his return, whenever that may be.

I read on Yahoo Sports a couple of hours ago that “The Yankees have the necessary pitching depth to weather a short absence by Hughes. If he can’t go for the start of the season, it would mean that Ivan Nova and David Phelps, currently competing for the fifth-starter spot, would begin the season in the rotation.”

Okay, but then who would get the fifth spot? Phelps was just 4-4 last year and is still unproven as a starter. Nova, who was 16-13 but had an ERA of 4.23, was near useless coming down the stretch.

The Yankees top three starters are C.C. Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Andy Pettitte; their average age is 36.7. I don’t know how anyone could call that “pitching depth.” It seems to me that the Yankees starting crew is just one more injury away from disaster. It wouldn’t be a good thing for Hughes to come back early and strong and finally fulfill his potential. For the Yankees it would be a necessity. In fact, I’d say the Yankees chances this year are in direct proportion to a Hughes’ comeback.


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