Phil Hughes Is the Starter Everyone Should Be Talking About

Lower velocity and a new pitch are reasons to watch Hughes

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Getty Images

    There's been plenty of attention paid to the Yankees rotation this offseason.

    Decisions by Cliff Lee and Andy Pettitte dominated much of the conversation since the Rangers eliminated the Bombers. Next came the closely followed spring training battle for starting spots. While all of that was going on, there was also a steady amount of attention paid to A.J. Burnett's attempt to bounce back from his terrible 2010 campaign.

    Phil Hughes, however, didn't merit all that many mentions. Given the outsize role Hughes will play this season, that seems strange.

    We can't argue with losing sleep over A.J. Burnett's ability, but all of the time spent worrying about the fates of Ivan Nova and the other back end candidates would have been better spent thinking about Hughes. He faded badly in the second half of last season and the sharp increase in his workload last season gives reason for concern about lingering difficulties.

    That concern only increased over the weekend as some slightly worrisome news about his velocity came across the wire. Both Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com and Joel Sherman of the Post reported that Hughes isn't throwing the ball as fast as he did last season.

    The Yankees aren't worried, saying that Hughes saw his velocity rise in April 2010 once the regular season got underway. That's reassuring, although Sherman's note that he was starting from a higher speed at this point last year doesn't totally erase the doubts about Hughes.

    Hughes needs to take a step forward from last season or, at the very least, perform the way he did in the first half of 2010 for the entire season. Given Burnett's inconsistency at the best of times, Hughes is the only guy on the roster with enough talent to really give the Yankees a one-two punch at the top of the rotation.

    That talent has never quite added up to the results everyone predicted when he was on his way up the ladder. Despite the gloomy news about his velocity, there's reason to believe that this will be Hughes's breakout year.

    He's started throwing a slider, giving him a fourth pitch to go with the fastball, curve and cutter he threw last season. When Hughes struggled in 2010, he usually fell into a predictable pitching pattern that allowed hitters to guess what was coming more often than not.

    If he can mix and match four pitches, he'll have a much better chance of competing on days when he doesn't have his best fastball working. It would also make any drop in velocity, assuming it doesn't go away, a lot easier to manage. 

    We'll find out soon enough and Hughes is sure to get a lot more coverage no matter what kind of results he produces on the mound.  

    Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter and he is also a contributor to Pro Football Talk.