Phil Hughes is starting for the Yankees tonight in Baltimore. In his last two starts he has allowed 13 runs in 6 1/3 innings with an equal number of strikeouts and home runs allowed (and more walks) over those two appearances. Hughes threw 134 pitches over those two appearances. His opponents swung and missed at just three of them. With David Phelps having posted a 2.84 ERA in four starts this month, three of them quality, each better than the last, there's a growing sense that Phil Hughes is pitching to save his job tonight.
I don't think the issue is quite that pressing, but it would certainly behoove Hughes to prove that those last two starts were flukes starting tonight. Here's the Yankees' current rotation situation:
Andy Pettitte and Ivan Nova are on the disabled list. Their places have been taken by Phelps and rookie Vidal Nuño. Pettitte is guaranteed his rotation spot back when he returns, which could be as soon as June 2. Phelps, meanwhile, seems to be in the process of locking down Nova's spot, pushing Nova, who posted a 6.48 ERA in four starts before hitting the DL after posting a 5.02 ERA over 170 1/3 innings last year, into a position in which he'd need Phelps or Hughes to stumble, or Pettitte's injury to linger, in order to get back into the rotation.
Of course, Hughes has stumbled, and if he stumbles again tonight, the Yankees may not wait until Nova's return, which still has no target date, though he did throw 60 pitches in a simulated game on Monday, to remove Hughes from the rotation. Adam Warren, for example, has been outstanding in long relief for the Yankees thus far this season. On the month, he has had two outings of three or more innings and 50 or more pitches, and both were scoreless, resulting in a combined line of 7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 8 K. He also had that strong 5 1/3 innings of relief against the Red Sox in the season's opening series. On the season, the 25-year-old righty has posted a 1.37 ERA and 1.07 WHIP.
Then there's Nuño, a 25-year-old lefty. Nuño hasn't allowed a run in eight major league innings this season, one of them a five-inning start against the Indians on May 13, and has posted a 1.54 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, 10.0 K/9, and 13.00 K/BB in four starts at Triple-A.
Here's why I don't think Hughes is pitching for his job just yet. Sunday's rainout allowed the Yankees to skip a starter, and they skipped Nuño, not Hughes, and Nuño was scheduled to start ahead of Warren for the second time this season. With Thursday's off-day, the Yankees won't need a fifth starter again until next Tuesday, and if Pettitte returns after the minimum, the next time that spot in the rotation comes back around Pettitte will be eligible to fill it. So Nuño could be up for just a single start once again.
Now, I get the impression that some around these parts might be upset with the lack of opportunities the Yankees are affording Nuño. Allow me to lend a little outsider perspective. Vidal Nuño is a 25-year-old lefty with an average fastball that doesn't crack 90 miles per hour who was drafted in the 48th round in 2009 and was pitching in the independent leagues two years ago. Yes, he impressed in Spring Training. Yes, he has some impressive numbers in Triple-A and the majors this season, but those numbers have come in a total of 31 1/3 innings over six appearances and he didn't make a single batter swing and miss at any of his 89 pitches in his start against the Indians despite facing a lineup that included Mark Reynolds and Drew Stubbs. Nuño pitched well in High-A and Double-A last year, but he was also 24 last year, ten of his 11 appearances in High-A came in relief, and he was very good, but great as a starter for Double-A Trenton, a team whose home ballpark greatly favors pitchers.
Nuño was not a prospect coming into this season. Our John Sickels did list him among "others" on his list of Yankee prospects in December, but the "others" were 21 non-ranked minor leaguers that fell outside of his top 20. Those "others" are not prospects as the term is commonly used. Having reached the majors, Nuño has already fulfilled if not exceeded the expectations created by his being listed among Sickels "others." It's true that Hughes will be a free agent this fall and that the Yankees own Nuño for six major league seasons, so an investment in the future of the latter might have more value than an investment in the present of the former for the organization, but I'm not convinced the Yankees would get much return on an investment in Nuño, whose service clock won't be aversely affected by some extra time proving himself in Triple-A.
Hughes, meanwhile, as frustrating as his career path has been, has 676 1/3 innings of roughly league-average major league pitching under his belt. He also had a run of four straight quality starts before his last two duds in which he posted a 1.93 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and struck out more than a man per inning and six men for every walk. On May 4, he struck out nine A's in eight scoreless innings and got 18 swings and misses. On the season, he has those four very good starts and four very bad ones. He also thinks he has detected a mechanical flaw that led to those last two disasters, noticing on video that he was "getting on the side of the ball," the result of overthrowing (per LoHud).
It's true that Hughes needs to right his ship lest the Yankees start contemplating alternatives for the rotation, but I'm not convinced the organizational finger is hovering over the button just yet. The team still needs Pettitte or Nova to be ready to return to force a rotation crunch, and Nova isn't guaranteed a spot when he does return. The only pressure on Hughes right now is the pressure he has put on himself due to his poor performance. Hughes could indeed lose his rotation spot, but no one is about to take it from him.