The future looked so bright for Phil Hughes in 2007.
He was called up to the majors at the end of April to help rescue a pitching staff that wasn't getting the job done and he immediately made the move pay off by taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning of his second start. Even though he got hurt in that start and missed the next few months, he was just 20 and it looked like the birth of something big for the Yankees.
Little did they know that the injury, and not the near no-hitter, was the real harbinger. Since that auspicious debut, Hughes has bounced from majors to minors, rotation to bullpen and off and on the disabled list so often that it is hard to believe it has only been five years since he started his career.
There have been flashes of success over that time, particularly the first half of 2010, but the overwhelming summary of everything that Hughes has done is that he has never come close to living up to the promise that he held when he first arrived on the scene. That's why he's facing a battle for the fifth spot in the rotation with Freddy Garcia, a pitcher who was well on the road to washed up when Hughes was getting his first taste of life in the major leagues.
Since just about every spot on the roster is spoken for already, their battle will be one of the few actual competitions to keep an eye on during Yankees camp. The question is whether it is really a competition.
The Yankees know, for better or worse, what they are going to get from Garcia. He's rarely going to make your eyes pop out of your head with shock at his performances, good or bad, and that makes him a safe, predictable choice at the back of the rotation.
Hughes, as we've discussed, is anything but predictable. He's got a better arm and he's in better shape than he was in last season, but he's also never shown anything close to Garcia's ability to succeed despite having clearly superior stuff.
Long histories on both sides means that there isn't much you can learn during the spring. Garcia has never done well in camp, but always answers the bell, while Hughes has never given the team a full season of results so a few starts in Florida can't possibly tell you everything you need to know.
The Yankees were in a similar position last season when it came to the fifth spot in the rotation. Garcia was the safe choice and Bartolo Colon was the wild card who outpitched him in the spring with the spot going to Garcia because the Yankees needed some certainty in a shaky rotation.
This year, the rotation is stronger and that means there's more of a place to gamble on Hughes while keeping Garcia's steadier projection in reserve. Given how much rope Hughes has been given over the last five years, it is hard to imagine the Yankees snatching it all back right now without at least offering him one last chance to cement himself into the rotation.
It's hard to think he'll get much more than one more chance at this point, though. Hughes has to show that all of these travails have come together to make him a better pitcher or the Yankees will simply have to move on to other arms that can at least provide them with consistency on the mound.
Because, in all his years and all his roles, that's the one thing Hughes has never been able to do.