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Should the Yankees wait on Phil Hughes?

Nova and Phelps' strong springs could allow Bombers to bring Hughes along slowly
03/22/2013 5:27 PM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Phil Hughes has yet to appear in a Grapefruit League game. (AP)
David Phelps and Ivan Nova made what should be their penultimate Grapefruit League starts on Thursday night and Friday afternoon, respectively, both facing the Minnesota Twins and allowing five runs over the course of their outings; Phelps was on the mound in Thursday night’s home game, taking the loss after allowing five runs in 3.2 innings, and Nova gave up five but only four earned in 5.1 frames down in Fort Myers.

The pair is ostensibly competing to see who will round out the Yankees' rotation in 2013, and while both men have found a bit of trouble over their last two starts, their solid springs overall - combined with comments made by GM Brian Cashman about Phil Hughes Friday afternoon - may have changed the question from “which one gets the fifth spot?” to "which order do they slot into?”

Overall this spring, Phelps is 2-3 with a 3.97 ERA in six starts, having allowed 10 runs and 23 hits in 22.2 innings while striking out 18 and walking only seven; Thursday’s performance was his roughest outing of the spring, but even in that, he did work himself out of two jams before succumbing in the fourth inning. Nova, meanwhile, is 1-0 with a 3.21 ERA in four starts, having allowed nine earned runs (10 total) and 21 hits in 19.1 innings with 12 strikeouts and three walks, a good chunk of that coming over the last week against the Pirates and Twins.

However, as of Friday, Phil Hughes is 0-0 with a 0.00 ERA in no official appearances this spring, and he made his longest outing of the spring - a three-inning, 57-pitch performance - in a Minor League game against a Class-A Pirates team Friday afternoon.

Hughes will pitch again on Tuesday and is chronologically lined up for the fifth regular season game on April 6…but with both Nova and Phelps having had fairly good (and very similar) springs, might the Yankees be best served waiting on Hughes and letting the Nova/Phelps competition spill over into one or two regular season starts for each man?

On Wednesday, CC Sabathia spoke about Derek Jeter, saying that “(Jeter) being healthy Game 1 of the playoffs is better than him being healthy for Opening Day,” and the same may go for Hughes, a notion Brian Cashman admitted Friday afternoon.

“He’ll be a close call in the end,” Cashman said. “I think he’s certainly going in the right direction, but I think it’s just a time issue for him. If it’s better to backdate him on the DL and have him ready for the next turn in the rotation, we could do that.”

March 22 is the latest date teams can backdate a DL stint to, and because it’s the very beginning of the year, the schedule works out very well for the Yankees so it would be easy to get Hughes ready elsewhere; as of now, the Yankees have their Grapefruit starters set through Tuesday, with Andy Pettitte (Saturday) and Adam Warren (Sunday) going this weekend and CC Sabathia on the bump Tuesday after Monday’s off day.

Beyond that, the schedule lines up to have Hiroki Kuroda and Pettitte pitch in the final two Florida games, with Nova, Phelps, Warren, or perhaps Vidal Nuno able to go in their place if needed or pitch during next weekend’s final exhibition games in Washington and West Point.

Hughes, meanwhile, could go on the DL retroactive to this weekend, but continue to work at the Minor League complex to build up arm strength; if he stays on schedule after Friday, he could work again March 27 in a Minor League game, throw a simulated game or pitch with a Minor League group on the Yankees’ first regular season off-day on April 2, and then make one or two rehab starts at Triple-A Scranton on April 7 and/or 12 – temporarily replacing Warren or Nuno, who would likely start 2013 as the Yankees’ long man if Hughes is disabled, in the RailRiders’ rotation – before returning to the Yankees sometime during their home series with the Diamondbacks April 16-18.

By that time, Nova and Phelps will have made two starts each, and Joe Girardi has an off-day on April 15 to ensure the winner of full rest before his third start and ensure whoever goes to the bullpen that they’ll have had a few days off before being needed.

Love him or hate him, Phil Hughes made 32 starts last season, one less than team leader Hiroki Kuroda; with the way his spring, as well as those of Nova and Phelps, has gone, perhaps making sure he’s fully ready to make No. 1 in 2013 – and can stay healthy to make 25-30 more – is worth the wait?

Follow Lou DiPietro on Twitter: @LouDiPietroYES

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