Yankee fans are not known for their patience, especially with pitchers. We want strikes thrown, we want to hold leads and we want consistent performances game-to-game, season-to-season and especially in the postseason. Anything less than that and Yankee pitchers begin to see and hear Yankee fans express their dissatisfaction.
The team’s fans grow even more impatient when management touts young pitching prospects as ready-for-prime-time starting pitchers. That’s what happened to Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain and also finally, today’s birthday boy, Phil Hughes. All three are now ex-Yankees and of the trio, it was Mr. Hughes who came closest to fulfilling the lofty expectations of New York’s front office and Yankee fans. But close only counts in horseshoes, not in the Bronx.
He originally showed us something in 2007, especially in the playoffs against Cleveland. He earned another reprieve after a very shaky start in 2008 and a rib injury that sidelined him for much of the year. Then in 2009, Hughes stepped up big when he was sent to the bullpen to become Mariano Rivera’s setup man. After a highly publicized spring training competition with Chamberlain for the 2010 fifth starter position, Hughes pitched as well as any starter in either league during the first half of 2010 season and made the All Star team. But even though he finished that year with an 18-8 record, he became a very ordinary pitcher in the second half and was once again ineffective in fall ball.
After failing to sign Cliff Lee and losing Andy Pettitte during the 2010 off season, the Yankees urgently needed Hughes to come out on fire in 2011. Instead, he was horrible. His confidence seemed to decrease in direct proportion to the lower and lower digital number readings on the radar gun aimed at Hughes’ fastballs. Finally, management put him on the DL and told us he had a dead arm. He did bounce back to win 16 games in 2012 and even pitched well in his first postseason start against Baltimore in that year’s ALCS. But in his next start against Detroit in Game 3 of the ALCS, Hughes complained of back stiffness in the third inning and he was taken out of the game.
Whatever the reason, physical, mental or mechanical, Hughes continued to be an enigma during what would be his final season as a Yankee in 2013 and actually regressed. He seemed to lose whatever ability he had to finish off good big league hitters on a consistent basis. Brian Cashman chose not to make him a qualifying offer after the season, afraid he’d accept the $14 million and make a bad situation in New York even worse and much more expensive. But “Hughesie” did land on his feet, signing a three-year $24 million deal to pitch for Minnesota. And through today’s date, the pitcher’s 28th birthday, the Twin Cities have proved very much to his liking. He’s currently 8-3 with his new team and I’m thrilled for him. He deserves the success.
|NYY (7 yrs)||56||50||.528||4.53||182||132||7||2||1||3||780.2||787||419||393||112||245||656||1.322|
|MIN (1 yr)||8||3||.727||3.40||15||15||0||1||0||0||95.1||99||37||36||7||9||82||1.133|
As the Yankees try to get in the playoffs for the seventeenth time in the last eighteen years, Yankee fans like me have had a lot to be thankful for. It certainly is nice to have your favorite baseball team still competing every October. But I can’t help but think how many more World Series trophies would now be on display in the new Stadium’s Yankee Museum if the team’s front office were better judges of pitching ability and more efficient developers of pitching talent. Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant provides a good example of the fabled franchise’s ongoing deficiencies in both areas.
Six seasons ago, Joba Chamberlain burst into the big leagues with some of the most impressive relief pitching I have seen in my fifty years as a fan. He didn’t just get opposing hitters out, he abused them. His ERA in 19 games, all played during pennant race crunch time was 0.38. Most of his outs were K’s and he seemed to have Mariano-like control of the strike zone. The Yankee front office promised us he would be an even better starter and I for one was sure they were right. But then the playoffs came and those stinking bugs swooped in off of Lake Erie and started swarming in Jacobs Field and consuming Joba that night on national TV, right in front of all our eyes. Chamberlain has not been the same pitcher since.
I was lucky enough to see Koufax pitch in his prime. In addition to great stuff, what made him so special was his ability to focus on what he needed to do and wanted to do with every single pitch he threw. Even when the pain in his left arm felt like a chain saw cutting through his flesh, Koufax was never distracted from focusing on the strengths and weaknesses of the hitter in front of him and what the mission of his next pitch had to be. When Joba first came up and things were going so well, I let myself think that maybe, just maybe I was looking at the next Hall of Fame Yankee pitcher. Even when the bugs attacked him, I figured any pitcher, even Koufax would be unnerved by such an occurrence. But since then, I’ve watched Joba walk too many bottom of the order types and make too many bad pitches when he’s ahead of the hitter.
It took the great Koufax a full six years at the beginning of his big league career to hit his stride. This season is Joba’s sixth in the big leagues and I was really hoping it would be the year this guy began to master the art of pitching at the big league level. But instead its been pretty much another lost season for the Lincoln, Nebraska native following his freak trampoline accident in Florida during the Yankees’ exhibition season. Chamberlain did dedicate himself to recovering and rehabbing both his arm and ankle quickly enough to get back on the mound in time for the Yankees’ 2012 stretch run but I’ve pretty much accepted the fact that he will never be the dominant pitcher I and thousands of other Yankee fans hoped he would. I’m ready to admit New York should have traded Joba instead of Ian Kennedy.
You remember Kennedy. He was one of the Holy Trinity of young Yankee hurlers that included Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, who were supposed to resurrect and anchor the Yankees starting rotation for the next decade. None of the three pitched well in their 2008 debut as starters but it was Kennedy who was banished from the Bronx while Chamberlain and Hughes kept getting new chances to redeem and redefine themselves.
I’m not sure who has been making the pitcher acquisition decisions or who’s in charge of young pitcher development for the Yankees but neither has done their job too well over the past decade. From Jeff Weaver for Ted Lilly, the signing of Kevin Brown, giving up on Contreras, getting Jared Wright, Denny Neagle, Karl freaking Pavano, Randy Johnson with a bad back, spending the farm on a second go-round with Clemens then trying to go save money on your eighth inning set-up slot with names like Veras, Vizcaino and Proctor, giving AJ all those years and all that cash, going after Igawa and Vazquez II. Those moves cost millions of Yankee dollars and helped facilitate several quick exits from postseason. Then there’s the whole Joba Rules thing and the “Who’s the real Phil Hughes” game show being played out the past few seasons. How come there were no “Ivan Rules” being enforced? And what on earth has happened to the three Killer B’s who were supposed to anchor the Yankees’ starting rotation for the next decade? I love Curtis Granderson but it sure would have been nice to have both him and Ian Kennedy in pinstripes the last couple of seasons. The Yankees could really use a bottle of Windex to clean that crystal ball they’ve been using to see the future of their pitching personnel, but hey, 16 postseasons in 17 years, I got nothing to complain about.
This former Yankee GM shares Joba’s birthday. Today is also the third birthday of my precious granddaughter, Francesca Rose Cinquanti. Her parents got the inspiration for her name from Yankee catcher Francisco Cervelli. Happy 2nd Birthday Frankie! Poppi loves you with all my heart!