The Problem With Phil Hughes, Reliever

Hughes has dominated since moving to the pen

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It's way too soon to call the Phil Hughes-Mariano Rivera tandem a game-shortening pair on par with Rivera and John Wetteland, but it's the closest the Yankees have seen in a good many years. Hughes has pitched 17 innings in relief over the last two months, and has allowed just seven hits, three walks and two runs in that time. That's dominant work, and makes it hard to imagine making a change to something that's been working so well.

That said, there's ample reason for the Yankees should make a change. It sounds ridiculous after watching him carve up the Twins on Wednesday and Thursday, but there's a strong argument for moving Hughes back into a starting role. Not because Chien-Ming Wang is on the disabled list, necessarily, although that provides an opportunity to get Hughes back in the roatation. It may be a brief opening, however, which would leave the Yankees back where they started.

The argument has little to do with this season, anyway. If Hughes stays in the bullpen for the rest of the season, he'll probably finish in the neighborhood of 90 innings pitched for the season. Based on the way they've handled him and other young pitchers, it would be hard for the Yankees to swap him back into the starting rotation without a low innings limit in 2010.

There's a workaround that could operate as a way to address both issues, which would be using Hughes for multiple innings. That would run counter to the way managers have handled the bullpen for 20 years, though, and that's not going to happen with Joe Girardi, who is an acolyte of Tony La Russa, and believes there's no job one reliever can do that three relievers couldn't do better.

Hughes, like Joba Chamberlain, is a pitcher who should be in the starting rotation because that's where the Yankees will derive the most value from their right arms. Like Chamberlain, though, Hughes has shown that there's a lot of work to be done before he'll be the dominating pitcher they desire. He's not going to get that work done an inning at a time out of the pen, even if that's the role that benefits the Yankees today, tomorrow and next week.

Given the way Wang has pitched and the age of Andy Pettitte, you're looking at two potential rotation openings next season. The Yankees say they still view Hughes as a starter in the long view, which would indicate he's the guy to step into either opening, but that's cloudier if he spends the rest of the year in the pen, regardless of how well he pitches in that role.

The Yankees have been unshakable in their belief that Chamberlain belongs in the rotation, so it's interesting that they have been so quick to abandon the plan with Hughes. Again, it gives them the best chance to win right now so it makes sense to not break what isn't already broken. It is something they'll have to think about, though, lest they lose the war for the want of a battle.  

Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City and is a contributor to FanHouse.com and ProFootballTalk.com in addition to his duties for NBCNewYork.com.

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