Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Hughes gives Yanks reason to believe

It's too early to say if Phil Hughes' fine debut against the Tigers will eventually be seen as a turning point in the young Yankees season. But there's no denying that the six shutout innings fired by the 22-year-old on Tuesday injected some Obama-style HOPE into the team and fanbase.

As far as early-season games go, this was a big one for the Yanks. A brutal Friday-night loss at Fenway had snowballed into a series sweep and CC Sabathia was unable to keep up with Justin Verlander in Monday's opener in Detroit. One of CC's chief jobs as the $161 million ace is to make sure losing streaks don't happen, yet he failed in that regard.

So, with the Wanger floating in some sort of rehab purgatory, the Yankees turned to Hughes, the prospect they heralded as the future of the parent club only a year earlier. Hindsight being 20/20, the decision to thrust Hughes into that spotlight was both unfair and unwise, but such strategies make more sense when you're passing up Hall of Fame left-handers who eventually sign in Queens.

Hughes and fellow wunderkind Ian Kennedy both failed miserably in '08, famously unable to win a game between them. But Hughes' struggles were particularly frustrating. Hughes and Joba were the chosen ones of the farm system. We had read all the stories about Hughes being the untouchable prospect, armed with a fastball that topped out at 94 and a knuckle-curve that reminded people of the Moose. He had won a playoff game in relief of Roger Clemens in '07, and the specter of that injury-curtailed no-hit bid in Texas still swirled.

Tuesday's performance reminded fans of Hughes' immense potential. He was economical (99 pitches) and showed an ability to put away hitters (a career-high six K's). He showed the killer instinct that we used to see in Joba.

And what about Joba? He's been quite the mystery this season, his plus- velocity and plus- swagger seemingly left somewhere in the old Yankee Stadium bullpen. There are people who continue their staunch belief that there's no way Chamberlain returns to the 'pen, but I'm of the opinion that this organization will do what it has to for No. 27 ... and I'm not talking about the manager.

If that means potentially stunting Joba's progress as a starter by sticking him back in the 'pen, so be it. I'm not saying it's right, I'm just saying it's a bit naive to think the Yankees will put Chamberlain's development over an opportunity to win a World Series. This is the epitome of a win-now team, and as the front office looks down the age column of its roster, I'm sure they are fully aware this is likely the last chance to win a title as presently constituted.

We will see Hughes for at least four more starts, so it's too early to get all worked up about his pre-determined ascent to greatness. That said, if he's rolling as the Wanger comes of the DL, I just don't see Hughes getting a pat and the ass and a ticket back to Scranton.

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