Back in 2006 and 2007, Phil Hughes rose through the Yankees' minor league system with a great deal of fanfare. The right-hander represented something rare within the Yankees (and any) organization: a legitimate starting pitching prospect with top-of-the-rotation potential. Indeed, in 2007, Baseball America ranked Hughes No. 4 overall among all minor league prospects and ahead of pitchers like Tim Lincecum, Yovani Gallardo, and Clayton Kershaw.
Six years later, as Hughes stands on the precipice of free agency, those days seem like a long time ago. The 27-year-old’s career has not been bad by any stretch, but there is little denying that Hughes has fallen short of his once-lofty potential in pinstripes. In 21 starts so far in 2013, for example, he possesses a 4.87 ERA, a 4.66 FIP, and has compiled just 0.8 WAR through 114.2 innings pitched.
Such underwhelming numbers have become commonplace for Hughes over the past few seasons, as Yankees fans have grown accustomed to the plethora of home runs that plague the right-hander in nearly every start. His career HR/FB rate of 10.3% is already subpar, but in the past couple of seasons, that number has ballooned to 12.4% in 2012 and 11.7% in 2013.
In addition, Hughes’ propensity to give up the long ball, along with his below-average performances over the past three seasons, has further underscored the lack of diversity in his pitch repertoire. Dating back to 2007, Hughes has relied heavily on a straight four-seam fastball, throwing the pitch 63.1% of the time during his career. Since then, the right-hander has looked to supplement his fastball with a number of different offerings, experimenting with a curveball, cutter, and changeup since his debut six seasons ago.
In 2013, Hughes has begun mixing in a slider, featuring the pitch in 22.1% of his offerings, while throwing that four-seamer 62.8% of the time. This means, of course, that Hughes has thrown either a fastball or slider on over 85% of his pitches this season, which is an extremely unvaried arsenal for a major league starter and more resembles that of a reliever.
Given this fact, the question for any team looking to pay the impending free agent this offseason is whether or not Phil Hughes might just be best suited for the bullpen?
Turning starters into relievers isn’t anything new for big league teams, including the Yankees, who have Vidal Nuno and Adam Warren pitching out of their bullpen this season. Seattle’s Oliver Perez and Kansas City’s Luke Hochevar represent two of the more successful bullpen reclamation projects in 2013, and over the past few years, major league organizations have found valuable assets in numerous pitchers who didn’t quite have the arsenal or command to succeed as a big league starter.
For Hughes, a trip to the bullpen may just prove to be the most logical move. After all, his best season came back in 2009 when he pitched out of the bullpen 44 times and finished with a 3.23 FIP, 2.4 WAR, and a career-high 27.4% strikeout rate. Since then, Hughes has proven mediocre as a starter, and it is fair to wonder if his two-pitch repertoire would play better as a reliever. One can imagine his fastball, already averaging a respectable 92.9 mph in 2013, would only gain an extra tick or two in velocity.
Turning Hughes into a reliever is likely not an option for New York, a team that has nothing but struggling starters behind Hiroki Kuroda and a rejuvenated Ivan Nova. But Hughes’ next employer, whoever they may be, would be wise to question whether the righty hurler can succeed as a starter in the majors. Perhaps a park that is less susceptible to home runs than Yankee Stadium would work wonders for Hughes (he does have a career 7.1% HR/FB ratio on the road), yet any team would be taking a leap of faith given his increasing inability to generate strikeouts or groundballs.
Ultimately, due to his lack of a successful track record, the best move may be to let another team pay Hughes like a starter in free agency.
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All stats courtesy of Brooks Baseball and FanGraphs.com.
Alex Skillin is a Staff Editor for SoxProspects.com and writes, mostly about baseball and basketball, at a few other places across the Internet. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.