Thursday, September 5, 2013

Could Hughes Be The Yankees' Set-Up Man in 2014?

For a moment I thought about the possibility of Phil Hughes joining the Yankees bullpen next season, and possibly taking over as the set-up man for David Robertson.

"Yeah, that could work."

I can't say that I'd feel comfortable with somebody like Preston Claiborne as the new set-up man, even though he's been very good this season. On the surface, his ERA of 2.74, thanks to holding opposing batters to a batting line of .231/.285/.335, should make anybody happy to have him in the 8th inning. But Preston is only 25 years old, and had an ERA in AAA of almost 4.00. On top of that ERA, Claiborne's WHIP in AAA was a fairly high 1.328. For comparison, David Robertson is well-known for allowing too many baserunners, but is able to get out of trouble thanks to his high strikeout rate. Meanwhile, Clairborne's strikeout rate hasn't been as high as DRob's since Preston was in low-A minor league ball.

As for other options, who could be or will be around next season, we have Shawn Kelly, Adam Warren, and minor leaguers such as Dellin Betances. Depending on how many starters the Yankees acquire this offseason, somebody such as David Phelps or Michael Pineda may be available for the set-up job, but are they any more trustworthy? Phelps is much more valuable as either a starter or long reliever, while Pineda's coming off of a major injury and hasn't come into a game as a reliever since A+ ball.

In my original look at the 2014 payroll, I mentioned that the Yankees may want to look at a free agent or trade candidate to take over as the set-up man or closer. Seeing as how Phil Hughes has said that he'd be open to a relief role, although he'd prefer to remain a starter, what about a regular bullpen role?

Mind you, Phil hasn't been a regular part of the bullpen since 2009, when he came out of the bullpen 44 times out of 51 total appearances. So we can't assume that he'd fall right back into those old ways, when opponents only hit .172/.228/.228 against him. That thinking may actually be downright silly, seeing as how he's given up a batting line of .293/.342/.404 to opponents in the first inning this season. But perhaps he'd throw differently, knowing that he wasn't looked at to give the team around six innings.

"I get tired just thinking about throwing six innings."

Some may be concerned about Hughes as the new set-up man, or simply as a middle reliever, due to his penchant for giving up the long ball. But if you look at his career splits you'll see that while his home run rate as a starter is .04 HR/AB, that homer rate as a reliever drops all the way to .01 HR/AB. Even this season, in the first inning of his starts, Hughes has only given up one home run, while he's given up 11 over the next two innings. Of course, that first inning is typically against non-power hitters (spots 1-3 in the batting order), while the next inning is against your power hitters (spots 4-6 in the batting order). But I digress.

So re-signing Phil Hughes as a reliever, and possibly the set-up man for David Robertson, may not be a bad idea. It could actually turn out to be a very good thing. But this is where we get to the reason my thought of such a thing only occurred for a "moment".

In the last offseason there were three pitchers that were signed as starters, who were all under 30 years old (like Hughes)...

Scott Feldman was given a one year deal worth $6 million, even though he'd only produced a total WAR of 3.9 between 2010 and 2012. To be fair, I shouldn't count that low WAR against Scott. What should be counted against Feldman is the fact he missed about 20 starts in 2011 due to recovering from knee surgery.

Then we come to John Lannan. Lannan was 28 during the offseason, and received a one year contract worth $2.5 million. That was despite having a total WAR of 2.3 during the previous three seasons, in which he only missed two or three starts.

And finally there's Mike Pelfrey. Mike was 28 when he signed his last contract... a one year deal worth $4 million. In the three years prior to signing that deal, Pelfrey had a total WAR of 3.7. Of course, that WAR would have been better if it wasn't for the fact he missed pretty much the entire 2012 season due to having Tommy John surgery in May of that season. Yeah... that's right. Minnesota signed him, as a starter, about 7 months after he had TJ surgery.

By the way, Phil Hughes will be 27 years old when he signs his next contract, and his total WAR over the last three seasons is 4.2. Furthermore, Phil has only missed one start in the last three years. Which makes me feel almost 100% certain that somebody will give Hughes a chance to start for them next year.

You can be sure that Brian Sabean is watching Phil.

I see no way Hughes signs with a team, whether it be the Yankees or otherwise, as a reliever. That would make him worth even less when the time comes to sign his next contract, seeing as how relievers make much less than starters. Who knows? Maybe I'm vastly underrating Phil's love for the Yankees. I mean, I guess it's not crazy to think a player would take less money to play for a team he loves, rather than making more money for a team he's not as fond of. But I'm not going to hold my breathe for that.

Besides... it's Phil Hughes we're talking about. I really don't think he'll make the difference between having a decent bullpen next year, and having a great one.

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