In case you missed it, a late-2000s Yankees icon announced his retirement on Monday. Phil Hughes, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2004 and one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball by 2007, officially hung up his spikes this week, two years removed from his last major league pitch for the San Diego Padres. Hughes played seven seasons as a Yankee, spent five years with the Twins, and finished his career with the Padres, but he never quite reached the success expected of him in his prospect days.
With Hughes’s official retirement, it might mark the end of a trio of pitching prospects who were supposed to define the Yankees in the 2010s. Joba Chamberlain has been retired since 2017, Hughes has now moved on and Ian Kennedy, the third (and possibly most successful arm of the trio) is a free agent at age-36. Going back and telling a young, impressionable fan like me in 2008 what would become of their MLB careers by 2020 would have been a serious bummer.
Although they all had respectable MLB careers, they never hit their ceiling for the Yankees or for any other team. 3 years after their respective debuts, their cautionary tale is worth repeating again.
The Yankees face a similar scenario before this season – choosing to let the kids figure out their place in the team’s rotation and providing little veteran support in case of failure. It didn’t work in 2008, and I have my doubts that it will work in 2021.
Young players are the future of the sport. However, relying on several of them to comprise a championship contender’s rotation is a tall order. Consider the 2007-08 Yankees. They had just flamed out in the ALDS against Cleveland, but felt confident that they could run it back in 2008 with their only major additions being their prospect core. The team got slightly younger, but it also got worse. It was the first time the Yankees had missed the playoffs since 1993, and it was mainly because the kids weren’t ready for primetime roles.
Hughes and Kennedy opened the season as the third and fourth starters, beside Chien-Ming Wang, a 39-year-old Mike Mussina and a 36-year-old Andy Pettitte. The young arms combined to go 0-8 with an ERA over 7.00, an utter disaster. Complicating things, the Yankees had no one else to turn to in the rotation, as Chamberlain wasn’t prepared to start until June, leaving the team to start Darrell Rasner, Sidney Ponson, Carl Pavano and Dan Giese a combined 45 times with an ERA over 5.00. By the time Chamberlain was available to start, the team was hovering around .500, and an August shoulder injury ultimately marred his season. The Yankees finished 89-73 (a small miracle) and missed the playoffs by six games.
While I’m not projecting that for the 2021 Yankees, it’s a troubling tale for a team that has repeatedly talked about turning over the rotation to the likes of Deivi García, Clarke Schmidt, Michael King and Domingo Germán without any viable insurance options. García was impressive last year but hasn’t even thrown 40 MLB innings. Schmidt and King are complete unknowns at the Major League level. It’s impossible to know what to expect of Germán after a lengthy suspension. It has a bit of Hughes, Chamberlain and Kennedy vibe to it, no?
Aside from Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery, the team has no other starters they know they can count on next season. The Yankees look set to lose Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton and J.A. Happ, but they don’t have a concrete plan to actually replace those innings. What if any of the aforementioned young arms flop? Who will go down as this year’s Rasner or Ponson?
It’s not unrealistic to ask for one of García, Schmidt King or Germán to step forward, but expecting two or three of them to effectively fill the rotation void is a big ask. After the debacle that was the 2008 rotation, the team went out and spent big on CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to be their horses, and immediately won it all. Turns out, money is still the best way to build a championship rotation, and although the Yankees have plenty of it, their stinginess is affecting their potential.
It’s not like there aren’t rotation options out there, both familiar and unfamiliar. Instead, the Yankees have indicated they’ll go young with their starting pitchers, which will likely only go one of two ways – it’ll either be a masterful move and I’ll eat my words, or it will go down in flames and the team will be wishing it spent on more veteran pitchers. There’s still time this offseason to make a move or two, but unless the team has something up its sleeve, the 2021 rotation is slated to be a risky bet for a Yankees team that is running out of time to win a championship.