Yankees Weekly Preview: The return of Phil Hughes

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

This week, the Yankees will travel to St. Louis for three games against the Cardinals, before returning home to take on the Minnesota Twins and former Yankee Phil Hughes (oh, and Eduardo Nunez!).

This week's schedule and probable starters:

Monday, May 26th - at St. Louis Cardinals - Chase Whitley (0-0, 1.00 ERA) vs. Michael Wacha (3-3, 2.54 ERA)

Tuesday May 27th - at St. Louis Cardinals - David Phelps (1-1, 3.18 ERA) vs. Lance Lynn (5-2, 3.60 ERA)

Wednesday May 28th - at St. Louis Cardinals - Hiroki Kuroda (3-3, 4.15 ERA) vs. Shelby Miller (6-3, 3.18 ERA)

Thursday May 29th - Off

Friday May 30th - vs. Minnesota Twins - Vidal Nuno (1-1, 5.49 ERA) vs. Ricky Nolasco (2-4, 5.50 ERA)

Saturday May 31st - vs. Minnesota Twins - Masahiro Tanaka (7-1, 2.29 ERA) vs. Kevin Correia (2-5, 6.52 ERA)

Sunday June 1st - vs. Minnesota Twins - Chase Whitley (0-0, 1.00) vs. Phil Hughes (5-1, 3.15 ERA)

The opponents: St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Twins

The Yankees will take on the defending National League champions to start off the week, and while the Cardinals are only second at this point in the NL Central (behind the surprising Milwaukee Brewers), they're still without a doubt one of the best teams in the league.  St. Louis sits at 27-22 and sports a +20 run differential.  Once again, their elite pitching staff is proving to be one of the best in the league, combining for the 5th best overall xFIP (3.52), 5th best overall K/9 (8.41), and the third lowest HR/9 (0.72).  While their pitching staff is one of the best in the league, it needs to be, because so far, their offense has been mediocre at best.  They're 21st in runs scored and 14th in wRC+, and while Yadier Molina and Matt Holiday have gotten off to good starts, Matt Carpenter has struggled slightly to begin 2014 (just a 106 wRC+).  Still, the offense has enough weapons that, when combined with one of the best rotations in the league, the Cardinals will continue to be one of the elite teams in the majors.

After three games against the Cardinals, the Yankees will return to the Bronx to take on the Minnesota Twins.  Minnesota, who have been one of MLB's bottom feeders for the past few seasons, find themselves tied for second in the AL Central at 23-23.  It's pretty impressive that the Twins are .500 right now (and also a little lucky), as their pitching staff is one of the worst in the league.  Twins pitchers have combined for a 4.40 xFIP and 4.51 ERA, second and third highest in the league respectively.  Their only bright spot has been Phil Hughes (yes, that Phil Hughes, but more on him later).  Their offense hasn't been great (11th in runs scored, 13th in wRC+), but, mainly behind the bats of Brian Dozier, Kurt Suzuki, and Joe Mauer, they're manufacturing enough runs to keep them in the hunt.  While they've been decent this season, the Yankees will have to be happy to see the Twins waiting for them at home after what will no doubt be a tough series in the Cardinals.

Pitching matchup highlight: Whitley vs. Hughes

Rookie Chase Whitley will make two starts this week, as he continues to fill in while Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia remain on the DL.  Whitley hasn't been too bad since being called up from Triple A - in his two starts, he's only given up one earned run.  Unfortunately, he's only pitched nine innings combined in those two starts, never getting out of the fifth inning in either.  Still, he's done quite well since being called up, keeping the Yankees within striking distance (and they have won both of his starts, and that's what matters).  That's about all we can ask for.

This weekend's series against the Twins will mark Phil Hughes' return to New York.  After struggling in his last couple seasons with the Yankees, New York decided not to re-sign him in the offseason, and Hughes found a new home with Minnesota, signing a three year, $24 million contract with the Twins.  And, because of course, after posting a 5.19 ERA in his final season with the Yankees, he's now become the standout of the Twins pitching staff.  After two months of baseball, Hughes' record stands at 5-1, his xFIP is 3.56, and he's allowed just 0.66 HR/9 so far this season (after allowing 1.65 in 2012 and 1.48 in 2013).  Hughes has looked everything like what the Yankees expected he'd be, but hopefully the old Phil Hughes, the one we Yankee fans are familiar with, will show up once he returns to homer-friendly Yankee Stadium.

Who's hot and who's not:

Hot: Ichiro Suzuki - Ichiro has continued his hot hitting during the month of May, and with Carlos Beltran's status up in the air, he's found more consistent playing time over the past week.  Ichiro hit .333 over the past seven days, and his on-base percentage has been a terrific .474 over that same period.  Ichiro's hitting .361 this season so far, and while the sample size is still small, Ichiro's showing a lot more life than he did last year.  Perhaps being relegated to the fifth outfielder spot lit a fire under him.  Perhaps he's just been lucky (he's got a .433 BAPIP, so he's definitely been a little bit lucky).  Either way, if he keeps playing this well, Ichiro will help mitigate the (hopefully temporary) loss of Beltran, while giving the Yankees elite speed and defense in the outfield.

Not: Alfonso Soriano - Soriano has been the fourth outfielder and primary DH ahead of Ichiro for much of the year, as Girardi has favored Soriano's power and right-handed bat in a lineup of lefties.  However, Soriano, a notoriously streaky hitter, has been mired in a slump all season long.  In 2014, Soriano has hit .247/.272/.429 with an 88 wRC+, and while he has hit six home runs and has knocked in 18 runs, his on-base percentage really leaves a lot to be desired.  In the month of May, Soriano has struggled even more than he did in April, hitting just .229/.236/.386 with two home runs and eight RBI.  He'll no doubt hit five or six home runs over a three game period in a month or so, but a little more consistency (and a rise in that horrific OBP) would go a long way to making the Yankee offense more dangerous.

Final notes and predictions: 4-3 (1-2 against the Cardinals, 3-0 against the Twins)

While the Yankees rotation, even in its current form, certainly isn't bad, it isn't equal to that of the Cardinals.  And even though the Yankee offense has been pretty good this season (12th in runs scored), sending Whitley and Phelps to match up against Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn does not seem like a recipe for success (although Phelps looked great against Chris Sale last week).  Look for the Yankees to avoid a sweep, but probably still lose two of three against the Cardinals.

However, returning home to face the Twins should be just what the Yankees need after a hard series like they'll endure in St. Loius.  Their offense should have a field day against the Twins staff, and while they will send the rookie Whitley to the mound against Phil Hughes, Hughes will probably run into the homer-filled trouble that plagued him during his tenure with New York.  Look for a sweep in the Bronx.

How do you think the Yankees will do this week?  Vote in the poll and sound off in the comments!

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