Monday, April 14, 2008

Rumble in the Bronx

It was inevitable. Phil Hughes makes two sub-par starts and suddenly they're coming out of the woodwork: "Why didn't the Yankees trade Hughes for Santana when they had the chance???" Now I'm not going to tell you that I was dead-set against the deal (though I did think the Yankees were making the right decision to pass). But I also recall that opinion was fairly divided in the two camps. To listen to the chatter now, it's as if everyone had volunteered to pack Phil's bags.

But while I find the current overreaction somewhat laughable (and utterly predictable) it should not take away from the fact that Phil Hughes is genuinely struggling. But, that, too, is less laughable but still fairly predictable. Coming into 2008, Hughes had made 13 starts in the major leagues, sandwiched around a lengthy stay on the DL. Anyone who thought his transition from minor-leaguer to #2 starter was going to take place without a hitch needs to readjust his expectations.

While there's no rule that every starting pitcher takes a year or two before he figures it all out -- C.C. Sabathia went 17-5 in his rookie year, with nearly a strikeout per inning -- it's more often the case. Just look at some the current "aces" around the league and you'll see a group that struggled in their first full seasons on the mound: Jake Peavy, 12-11, 4.11 ERA; Josh Beckett, 6-7, 4.10; John Lackey, 10-16, 4.63; Erik Bedard, 6-10, 4.59. Hughes may very well suffer the ups and downs of a young pitcher this season, but those struggles won't necessarily preempt a stellar career.

Yet in addition to resetting their sites on Phil Hughes, Yankee fans need to readjust their expectations for 2008, as well. Not only has Hughes struggled early on, but so has his young rotation-mate, Ian Kennedy. Add to that the inconsistent Mike Mussina, and the older, fragile Andy Pettitte and the Yankee pitching is riddled with question marks. Past its #1 hurler, Chien-Ming Wang, just how many quality starts can this group be expected to produce?

Fret not, though: the Yanks are on the right track. Mussina will be gone next season, along with a number of other dead-weight contracts. (Carl who?) With another year of experience under their belts, Hughes and Kennedy might be fighting Wang for the #1 slot in the rotation by 2009. Throw in Joba (starter or reliever), Cabrera, and Cano, and the Yankees have a solid, young nucleus with more farm-system talent on the way. So what if the Yankees miss the playoffs this year? The payoff will be that much better in the end.

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By the way, since last we spoke, the Tigers won a game! Unfortunately, that win did not herald a turnaround. Not only have they not played at that super-charged .700 level, they aren't even winning more than they lose. At 2-10, now 29th in hitting, dead-last in slugging and ERA, one could make the case that the Tigers are actually playing worse now than during their winless streak. More and more, it looks like it will be a long season in Tiger Town.

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