It's been pretty clear since pitchers and catchers reported to camp this past February that 2013 was going to be a make or break season for Phil Hughes - that his success or failure would determine whether or not his Yankee career would continue. Coming off a decent 2.3 fWAR, 101 ERA- 2012 campaign, there were those, myself included, who firmly believed that Hughes would break out in his age 27 contract season - that he'd finally show the full potential that tempted Baseball America to rank the 6'5 right-hander as its number four prospect in 2007, back when he was known as Philip.
The 2013 season has been about as far from that dream scenario for Hughes as imaginable. He was mediocre in the first half then crumbled in late July and August prompting Joe Girardi to finally remove him from the rotation after a rain-shortened 1.1 inning outing last week. Hughes' numbers are hard to swallow. His 4-13 won-loss record, for whatever it's worth, is ugly. On the day of his demotion, his 4.54 FIP was tenth worst amongst all American League pitchers who have thrown 130 innings or more, and his 1.51 HR/9 rate ranked third from the bottom. The same issues that have plagued Hughes' entire career - too many fly balls that leave the ballpark far too often and the inability to put hitters away on favorable counts - have run rampant in what's more than likely his final year in pinstripes.
Phil Hughes' career, of course, can still be salvaged. Maybe he'll latch on with a National League team and test the old theory that he'd be great if he pitched in a big ballpark. He has, after all, been much better away from Yankee Stadium. His 0.85 career HR/9 on the road is literally half of what it is at home, his 3.78 FIP is over a run lower, and he's held opposing hitters to a svelte .303 wOBA while wearing the grays. Or maybe Hughes will end up pitching key innings in a bullpen somewhere. Before Friday night's thundering crescendo of epic fail, he had a 1.97 FIP and a Robertsonian 11.18 K/9 rate in 56 relief innings, mostly accumulated in 2009.
Hughes' future will seem clearer by the end of the approaching off-season, but for now we can begin to put his first seven seasons in the majors into perspective. It's easy to write Hughes off as an abject disaster, but unlike many previous first round picks and top prospects, he's had some success in the big leagues. Since he debuted in 2007 at age 20, the Yankees have paid Hughes just over $14 million. For that they've gotten two fWAR seasons of 2.3 or better as a starter, and the brilliant bullpen run in '09 that helped the team cruise to an AL East title and eventually a World Series win. Inexpensive back-end rotation options are valuable, and when he's been healthy, that's what Hughes has mostly been.
When compared with similar draft picks, Hughes' Yankee career doesn't seem so nightmarish. From 2002 through 2006 there were 25 pitchers taken with picks 20-29, including Hughes, who the Yankees selected with the 23rd pick of the 2004 draft. Of those 25, eight never threw a pitch in the majors and four more - Kyle Waldrop, Aaron Thompson, Taylor Tankersley and Bryan Morris - haven't gained traction for much more than a cup of coffee. David Aardsma, Chad Cordero, Craig Hansen, Daniel Bard and Joey Devine were relievers who had their careers derailed by injury, ineffectiveness or both and Glen Perkins boasts a FIP over 5.00 as a starter, despite achieving success in the pen of late. That makes Hughes one of just seven legitimate big league starters extracted from picks in the twenties over five drafts. While Matt Cain, Matt Garza and Chad Billingsley have all fared considerably better than Hughes, his 4.31 FIP, 105 ERA- career line is comparable with the other league-average types from the group - Joe Blanton (4.23/109), Jeremy Guthrie (4.75/98) and Ian Kennedy (4.07/98).
On the other hand, Hughes-hype in Yankeeland didn't begin in earnest until the 2007 Baseball America list that named him the fourth best prospect in the nation and the top minor league pitcher (Daisuke Matsuzaka was number one). When tested against other pitchers Baseball America deemed worthy of its top ten between 2005 and 2009, Hughes doesn't compare nearly as favorably as he does against his fellow draftees. Of the Baseball America group, Hughes ranks 19th out of 21 in ERA-, beating only Brian Matusz and Andrew Miller. He's 17th in FIP, ahead of Matusz, Miller, Matsuzaka and Franklin Morales, and 12th in fWAR - soon to be 13th, once Stephen Strasburg skips past him. There are other once-top prospects from the set who haven't exactly taken the majors by storm - Tommy Hanson, Brett Anderson, Homer Bailey and Joba Chamberlain to name a few - but also four Cy Young Award winners - Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, David Price and Clayton Kershaw.
Being on the lists put out yearly by Baseball America, mlb.com and other scouting publications is more a curse than a blessing. There's nothing tangible to be gained from it, and it severely raises the expectations of fans and media, who aren't known to be forgiving of anything less than total and utter triumph. Still, it's not like Hughes' name got pulled out of a hat. He's a pitcher who blew through the minors with low-two ERAs and sub-1.00 WHIPs in 2005 and 2006 and reached the majors before he could legally drink. That guy has been mostly missing in action ever since. It would be hard to be completely satisfied with a relatively small return on what once seemed like unlimited promise.
Ultimately whether or not Phil Hughes is a bust depends upon your definition of the term. Should the Yankees be thrilled or disappointed with a number 23 overall pick who has put together a decent, if unspectacular major league resume? If Hughes had been merely above average in the minors - if he'd taken four or five years to reach the show - we'd probably look at his career thus far in a different light. After all, he's produced more than any starting pitcher the Yankees have drafted and held onto since Andy Pettitte. But we wanted more than just okay from Hughes. We saw a shot at greatness in him. To watch all that derailed by inconsistent mechanics and meatballs galore has been hard to stomach. We look at Verlander and Kershaw, at King Felix and Price and say, "Why not us?"