It's make or break for Phil Hughes

06/08/2012 9:55 AM ET
By Jon Lane

The Yankees have faith in Hughes, but he must do his part to secure his future in the Bronx.(AP)


In the latest “Point/Counterpoint,”’s Jon Lane goes head-to-head with Bleacher Report’s Steve Skinner over Phil Hughes’ long-term future with the Yankees.

“Phil Hughes is back!”

That was the sentiment after the right-hander produced by far his best outing of the 2012 season – and in his finest since Game 3 of the 2010 ALDS when he silenced the Twins through seven innings. Not only did Hughes strike out eight in pitching his second complete game, he out-dueled the great Justin Verlander – last season’s AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner.

Is Hughes really back? I mean, really? He’s 4-1 with a 3.60 ERA over his last six starts following a terrible April, but time will tell the story on whether Philip Joseph Hughes, the Major Leaguer, is for real. As in worth the hype of a No. 1 draft pick in 2004 who Baseball America once rated the top prospect in the Yankees’ farm system. Not since Andy Pettitte has the Yankees cultivated a homegrown arm into a bona fide A-list pitcher. Joba Chamberlain was once forecast as one. Manny Banuelos (if healthy) or Dellin Betances (if under control) could be the one. But in the present time, Hughes can still become that guy.

If Hughes is healthy, dominating and – the operative word here – consistent, the Yankees have a legit No. 3 starter behind CC Sabathia and Pettitte and a No. 2 for as long as the Big Lefty is top-tier. Hiroki Kuroda is gradually pitching more effectively. Ivan Nova worked eight tremendous innings Wednesday night. Hughes on his game will lengthen the Yanks’ starting rotation into the force projected by many until Michael Pineda was lost for the season, Kuroda’s rude welcome to the American League, Freddy Garcia’s banishment to long relief and Hughes’ 7.88 April ERA.

Here’s the caveat: There are nights when, if you’re a Yankees fan, you love Hughes, others when he drives you absolutely crazy. If it’s the former, the Yankees’ chances of taking the AL East and advancing beyond the Division Series increase exponentially. If Hughes reverts to his ways of not finishing off a batter with two strikes, ratcheting up his pitch count to where he’s done after five innings or less and loses faith in his changeup, the Yankees could be done.

And Hughes could be done in New York, so it’s make or break for the right-hander who turns 26 on June 24, who the Yankees have waited to fully blossom since that injury-halted no-hitter in his second career start and the first half of the 2010 season. Hughes, off a lost ’11 campaign, avoided arbitration in January by agreeing to a one-year, non-guaranteed $3.2 million contract and Joe Girardi didn’t assure him a spot in the rotation. The message was out. This could be the right-hander’s final opportunity in pinstripes, which is why the time is now to get it done –consistently.

This is a microcosm of Hughes’ career: Seven shutout innings in the clinching 2010 ALDS Game 3 followed by a 0-2 record with an 11.42 ERA in the ALCS. Last month Hughes got back up and again scaled that mountain, reaching for that elusive star, when he tumbled a few feet after he was blasted in Anaheim, not far from where he grew up. When I watched Hughes throw that complete-game four-hitter this past Sunday emotions were bittersweet. Hughes is capable of doing special things. We just don’t see it enough. There’s perpetual trust in Sabathia and Pettitte when they take the mound even after a poor start, whereas with Hughes it’s hold your breath, cross your fingers and hope he’s on.

Hughes has been a prospect plated in gold, a fabulous setup man, an All-Star and has won in the postseason. His career record entering Saturday’s start against the Mets is 41-28 with a 4.52 ERA, but that’s makeup on a model. He won eight games in 2009, but five as Mariano Rivera’s unconquerable setup man. He went 18-8 in 2010, but 7-6 in the second half. Last season his velocity vanished thanks to a mysterious shoulder ailment and he missed three months. To his credit, he admitted to being out of shape and reported to camp in February in pristine condition, but the challenge was on the table.

“The thing about this game, it's not just going to happen,” Girardi said during Spring Training. “You've got to work it, this game. This game will humble you very quickly, because players make adjustments. You have to have an edge in this game, I think, and if you want to stay and be consistent and continue to get better, there has to be a strong work ethic, because someone is waiting to take your job.”

Hughes, off a lost ’11 campaign, avoided arbitration in January by agreeing to a one-year, non-guaranteed $3.2 million contract and Joe Girardi didn’t assure him a spot in the rotation. The message was out. This could be the right-hander’s final opportunity in pinstripes, which is why the time is now to get it done –consistently.

Nova takes the mound with that mentality, a big reason why he won 16 games as a rookie and is afforded a longer rope. Hughes has been around a lot longer, and the Yankees have stuck to their belief in him a starter despite that great stretch in ’09. Because we’re entering the gossip portion of the season, Hughes’ name will be mentioned in plenty of trade speculation. But if he fizzles, who will want him? And if he’s good, who outside of Cole Hamels is a legit upgrade for the present and the future? Matt Garza? He’s tough, but there are questions. Wandy Rodriguez? For $32 million through 2014? Please.

This is Hughes’ time to spare Brian Cashman of that headache while validating the faith that prevented him from sending the righty to the Twin Cities for Johan Santana. It’s the time of season for the Yankees when they play 15 straight games against Mets, Nationals and Braves – each of whom are .500 or better. Following that stretch the Indians and White Sox visit the Bronx, and neither is a pushover. Hughes will be starting those games with the demand for the roller coaster ride to stop. If he makes it, he could earn a big payday this winter. If he breaks, then the future is uncertain. Bleacher Report’s Steve Skinner believes he still deserves the luxury of time. The problem is, he’s been given time and the hourglass is running short unless the force that showed up in Detroit is once and for all the real Phil Hughes.

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