One of the most frustrating players in the last few years for the Yankees has always been Phil Hughes. Is he a starter or a relief pitcher? Is he hurt or is he healthy? Does he give up too many home runs? Should the team trade him? It seems that some of the questions have finally been answered, as Hughes produced another successful season in 2012. (While 2011 was washed out with a “dead arm” injury, it’s worth pointing out that it could be attributed to pitching almost 100 more innings than any other season of his career in 2010.) With 16 wins, a respectable ERA, return to normal velocity and, most importantly, a season unmarked by injury, Hughes took a step forward this season despite a rocky first month. Bear in mind, however, that Hughes is also a free agent in 2014. All of which raises a new question: with the Yankees slashing payroll, the cost of free agent pitching rising, and a relatively hot commodity in their laps, what should the Yankees do about Phil Hughes?
There are a couple of options as to what to do with Hughes. It’s clear that ownership isn’t breaking its commitment to getting below the $189 million threshold, so whatever happens in 2013 for Hughes, he isn’t going to get an outrageous deal from the Yankees that is akin to what some of the second-tier pitchers on the free agency market have been getting during this off-season. For instance, Hughes is relatively comparable to Anibal Sanchez, who just signed with Detroit for $88 million/5 years. Sanchez will turn 29 in February, 2013, while Hughes will turn just 27 years old. To this point, Hughes has appeared in 152 games with a career 4.39 ERA, while Sanchez has appeared in 145 with a career 3.75 ERA. Additionally, over the course of his career, Hughes is 52-36, with 536 Ks to 203 BBs, with a WHIP of 1.265; Sanchez clocks in with a record of 48-51, 733 Ks and 320 BBs, and a WHIP of 1.346. Hughes has the same K/9 as Sanchez (7.6); a better BB/9 (2.9 as opposed to 3.3); almost the same H/9 (8.7 vs. 8.8, respectively); and a barely-greater HR/9 despite his propensity to give up the home run with 1.2 to 0.8. (Note: it’s worth noting when looking at these numbers that, prior to joining Detroit, Sanchez pitched in the National League with the Marlins, before calling the pitcher’s park of Comerica home in 2012. Hughes, an extreme fly-ball pitcher, however, has been pitching in homer-happy Yankee Stadium since hitting the majors- not to mention pitching in the American League East.)
The comparisons aren’t perfect between Sanchez and Hughes — Sanchez has struck out more batters, and has been a bit more durable. But, earlier in his career, there were also questions about his health, too, following a shoulder labrum tear in 2007. Hughes, meanwhile, has at least managed to escape the surgery bug, despite missing the entire 2011 season. (Again, I would submit that the huge innings jump contributed to this issue.) Sanchez isn’t the greatest pitcher in the world, but that is the point here. Neither pitcher is the best available when they’ll hit or were on the market (in Sanchez’s case), and neither is a quintessential ace, nor even a #2 starter. At their best, both are about a #3 starter, and both have similar peripherals. Though Sanchez is slightly better by numbers, again, it bears noting the stadiums and division/league Hughes has pitched in. Further, Sanchez is two years older than Hughes, meaning that there are (theoretically, at least), more viable years out of Hughes than Sanchez.
As such, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that the Yankees break with tradition and extend Hughes despite the fact that his contract isn’t up yet. Realistically, the Yankees don’t have much starting pitching depth. It’s unclear if the cap space will allow them to re-sign Hiroki Kuroda or Andy Pettitte in 2014, as they collectively count for $27 million this year. The Yankees don’t have many options internally: Michael Pineda is coming off shoulder surgery that places his future in question a bit, and Ivan Nova had a disastrous year. David Phelps has just one year of big-league experience under his belt, while prospects Manny Banuelos will be out due to Tommy John surgery in 2013 and Dellin Betances dealt with a demotion from AAA to AA this year. It might make sense for the Yankees to try and reach an agreement with Hughes for something like $50M over five years. It would keep costs relatively low (Nova, Pineda and Phelps are all still under team control), and would keep with the new theme of not over-paying for players. It would cover the viable years between ages 27-32, and wouldn’t be too much of a financial burden.
Another option the Yankees have could be to trade Hughes. Pitching is at a premium, and durable, starting pitching is a hot commodity. The Yankees have an in-demand item in their laps. For a team who may be looking to rebuild, or has pieces to spare in order to acquire a solid starter, it might make sense. I’m not saying that the Yankees will get a four-player haul along the lines of what Oakland got for Gio Gonzalez (which included Tommy Milone, who is arguably just as good as Gonzalez), but it might be worth it if Hughes could bring in say, a young shortstop (what, you’d rather have Eduardo Nunez?), or a catcher with some decent pop that could be an offensive upgrade over Austin Romine/Francisco Cervelli/Chris Stewart. It’s not a crazy concept, particularly if the Yankees add one of these lower-tier prospects of minor league players as a throw-in to the trade.
The last, and possibly least palatable option for the Yankees, would be to hang on to Hughes with the intention of letting him walk in 2013. I’m not saying the Yankees should break the bank for Hughes, and offer the same deal that Sanchez got — even me, who is a die-hard Hughes supporter, would tell the Yankees to say “thanks, but no thanks” to that one. There isn’t a whole lot of starting pitching depth for the Yankees that would allow them to absorb losing 13-16 wins per season, particularly with an offense that may be less potent after losing Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, and Alex Rodriguez to injury for at least 4-6 months. Further, with pitching being such a hot commodity, it may make more sense to trade him to a team that will pay that kind of money (or be desperate enough to overpay in a trade for a playoff push), to at least ensure there is some sort of return for letting him walk. It would be hard to swallow for the Yankees to let a viable option walk away without getting anything in return.
Granted, all of these scenarios are contingent on Hughes 1) having a solid 2013 season and 2) maintaining his health. Neither of which are guaranteed. And it also wouldn’t be a shock for Hughes to tell the Yankees to go kick rocks with such a figure for an extension, particularly with such a outrageously overpriced market for even the most average of starting pitchers the last two offseasons, and you really couldn’t blame him for trying to maximize his payday. But, given his relative youth and the glimmers of potential in his game, the Yankees could make a case for either a trade or extension, and certainly would rather have either than letting a hot commodity walk away with no return. A lot of what happens next season will depend on Hughes, but in the meantime, despite all of the answers his performance may have answered, there will continue to be more questions about his future with the Yankees.