The SoCal native was an elite prospect just a few years ago. Before the 2007 season, he was rated the best pitching prospect in baseball, third overall behind Alex Gordon and Delmon Young. (Later that offseason, Daisuke Matsuzaka joining the Red Sox organization pushed Hughes to fourth overall.) And for good reason; he was coming off a ridiculous '06 campaign for High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton: 146 IP, 2.16 ERA, 168 K, 34 BB, .86 WHIP, all at the age of 20. For comparison, neither Manny Banuelos nor Dellin Betances came close to replicating those numbers despite being as old or older than Hughes (and at the same level).
But what happened? Why has Hughes disappointed so far in the big leagues? What does the future hold for him?
To start with, he was probably rushed. At a time when the farm system wasn't nearly as strong as it is now, the Yankees called him up due to injuries at the ML level in late April of 2007, when he was still just 20 years old (and had thrown less than 30 innings at Triple-A). He pitched respectably well in his first game against Toronto (losing to, of all pitchers, A.J. Burnett) and was on his way to a possible no-hitter in Texas when his hamstring gave out.* All the subsequent injuries, in my opinion, stem from this "popped" hammy. He missed three months that season.
Hughes has hit the DL in three of his five ML seasons. It looked like, after a solid - and healthy - 2010 (176 IP, 4.19 ERA), that he would be primed for an even better 2011. Just the opposite, as he failed to reach five innings in three April starts and then was out until July.
Brian Cashman seems to have learned from that 2007 episode though. He didn't promote top prospect Jesus Montero until September despite this being his second season in Triple-A; and he refused to promote either Banuelos or Betances in September, even though the team could've used one or the other.
A good example of how to promote Yankee pitching prospects is probably Ivan Nova. He had a lot of experience. Nova had thrown more than 200 innings at Triple-A before making his ML debut in 2010. And instead of taking a step backward, he took a step forward and will vie for Rookie of the Year.
Unfortunately, we can't go back in time and convince Brian Cashman not to promote Hughes on that cool, rainy night in April of 2007. But we need to ask some questions of Phil: Can he remain healthy and effective as a starter? How long should he be given to prove that? Would he not be better off as a reliever?
Joba Chamberlain is a player many fans think pitches undeniably better as a reliever. (First off, what pitcher wouldn't?) But when comparing his start/relief splits to Hughes', well, there really is no comparison. Joba has been more viable as a starter while Hughes has been miles better in the bullpen.
Career starter/reliever splits:
SP: 222 IP, 4.18 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 2 K/BB, .759 OPS Against
RP: 160 IP, 3.03 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 3.7 K/BB, .617 OPS Against
SP: 387 IP, 4.90 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 2.1 K/BB, .751 OPS Against
RP: 56 IP, 1.44 ERA, .91 WHIP, 4.1 K/BB, .470 OPS Against
As you can see, Hughes is much better (relatively speaking) as a reliever than as a starter. If either of the two is to be moved to the bullpen permanently, should it not be Hughes?
The Yanks have a slew of starting pitching prospects (Banuelos, Betances, Hector Noesi, David Phelps and Adam Warren, just to name a few), so I'd give Hughes one more season to prove his worth as a starter. After that, he would fit in nicely at the back end of the bullpen after Mariano (possibly) retires. Of course, a lot will depend on whether CC Sabathia returns.
* Who knows why. Maybe he felt extra pressure due to the no-hitter and/or being a 20-year-old rookie. Whatever it was, he overthrew a curveball (trying to "bury" it), which led to the hamstring injury.