FOR baseball players, spring training is about getting in shape and gaining a suntan. After an off-season dominated by the Mitchell Report, Roger Clemens and Human Growth Hormone, hopefully the only juice currently on offer down in Florida is Tropicana. The grapefruit variety, naturally.
Batters are searching for the sweet spot, pitchers seeking to establish a groove and rhythm. Results are irrelevant; it’s more about personal performance. And that’s why Brian Cashman, general manager of the New York Yankees, might just be feeling slightly uncomfortable at the moment.
It was Cashman who reportedly persuaded Hank Steinbrenner and the other Yankees “suits” to go with potential rather than a proven ace in Johan Santana. Only time will tell whether the Yanks were right not to succumb to the demands of the Minnesota Twins … and then see Santana sign a six-year deal, worth a reported $137.5 million, with their cross-town rivals The Mets.
During the winter meetings, the Twins seemed to be asking a lot more in return from the Yankees than they eventually got from the Mets. Understandably, Cashman, and new manager Joe Girardi, were reluctant to give up Phil Hughes, Melky Cabrera, maybe even Ian Kennedy, and a couple of prospects.
So the decision was made to stick with the current rotation and give the youngsters – Hughes, Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain – a chance to shine. Shine, the sun has, during the last six weeks in Florida. Worryingly for Yankees fans, however, Hughes has not. The 21-year-old gave up seven runs in just four innings, including three home runs, in his latest start on Wednesday, pushing his earned run average up to 7.71.
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The punishment wasn’t even handed out by the Red Sox or Blue Jays’ hitters. The perpetrators were none other than the Pittsburgh Pirates, who finished rock bottom of the National League Central Division last season with a record of 68-94, the second worst in baseball. It was the second game running that Hughes had been roughed up and while he claimed afterwards that the problem is “a fixable thing”, there is definite cause for concern about his mechanics.
The likeable Hughes, who has his own blog (philhughes.worldpress.com), has long been regarded as the Yankees’ top pitching prospect. Pressed into service earlier than planned last season due to injuries, he was throwing a no-hitter through six innings against the Texas Rangers in May when he pulled a hamstring. When he eventually returned after a three-month lay-off, he didn’t seem to have quite the same velocity or sharpness.
Time, of course, is on Hughes’ side. The Yankees, however, need to see potential turned into victories in the coming season, which opens against Toronto at Yankee Stadium on March 31. Mike Mussina, who will be 40 later this year and had an ERA of 5.15 last season, is in the twilight of his career. Some say that dusk has already fallen. Andy Pettite, 36 in June, had an ERA of 4.05 last season but it remains to seen whether the distractions of steroids and Congress have had an effect on him.
If the Yankees are to regain the American League East pennant from the World Series-winning Red Sox, much will depend on Chien-Ming Wang, Kennedy and Hughes, not to mention Chamberlain and evergreen closer Mariano Rivera, another man who must defy Old Father Time. Cashman admits there will be “growing pains.”
The problem is that for a team with a $200 million payroll – and 26 World Series championships to their name – anything short of first prize is regarded as failure. It’s now eight years since the Bronx Bombers last won the World Series. October is all about starting pitching, as the Yankees learned to their cost against C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona of the Cleveland Indians last year. Based on those play-offs, Wang is not going to be the No 1 every team needs. That places a big burden on Hughes’ young shoulders. In the next seven months, we’ll find out if he’s up to it – or whether the Yankees live to regret passing on Santana.