A.J.'s absence puts spotlight on Hughes

TAMPA -- Now that A.J. Burnett has taken his act 40 miles south to Bradenton, Phil Hughes has taken his place as the most puzzling pitcher in Yankees camp.

Like Burnett last spring, Hughes comes to camp with much to prove, to his manager and to his teammates. Like Burnett, Hughes' best moments as a Yankees starter are rapidly receding in the rear-view mirror. And like Burnett, Hughes may be embarking upon his last chance to convince the Yankees that he is worth sticking with rather than giving up on.

And as with Burnett, the Yankees may soon be forced to make a tough call in regards to Hughes.

The difference is, Burnett's moment of truth came at age 34 in his 13th big league season, while Hughes has reached his crossroads much sooner, after just five seasons, only one of which was a full season, and still four months shy of his 26th birthday.

"It's a little strange," Joe Girardi said Thursday in Yankees camp. "Five years in camp and his role is still not clearly defined."

It's more than strange. It's baffling. Wasn't it only yesterday that Hughes and Ian Kennedy were a previous generation's Killer B's, expected to anchor the Yankees' rotation of the future?

And when it was time to make a choice, didn't the Yankees opt to hold on to Hughes and ship off Kennedy in the three-way deal that brought Curtis Granderson to the Bronx?

Now here we are on the cusp of 2012 and Kennedy is coming off a 21-win season for the Arizona Diamondbacks in which he finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting, while Hughes is forced to battle for the last spot in the Yankees' rotation against Freddy Kruger, er, Garcia, the ancient starter no one can seem to kill off.

"Same thing I do every spring," Hughes told ESPNNewYork.com's Andrew Marchand this week when asked what he did to prepare for this pivotal training camp. "All I can do is come in ready to go and try to do the best that I can, pitch as well as I can and try to make decisions hard for them. Other than that, there isn't much I can control."

But this spring is different for Hughes, and it shows. He went to "fat camp" this winter and came to Yankees camp in the proverbial Best Shape of His Life. And whether he or Girardi wants to acknowledge it or not, this spring Hughes has every bit as much to prove as Burnett did last year.

And he doesn't just have to be good this spring, he has to be better than good because the guy he is up against, Garcia, always seems to get graded on a curve in spring training.

Last season, Freddy was clearly outpitched all spring by Bartolo Colon, but was given the fifth starter's job for two reasons: No one was quite sure what to expect from Bartolo, and everyone knows that Freddy Garcia in the spring is the not the same pitcher as Freddy Garcia in the summer.

"I'm pretty sure of what I'm going to get from Freddy," Girardi said. "His history has been, don't judge him by spring training. Freddy competes. That's the bottom line about Freddy. I think it is a little more comforting knowing him after last year."

About Hughes, Girardi said, "We are trying to figure out what we're going to get from him, there's no doubt about that. We have an expectation of what we're going to get from him, but we need to see it, obviously."

If it sounds like a repeat of last spring, when one guy had to knock the other guy out just to get a draw, that's probably what it is.

Obviously, Hughes' struggles of last season, widely documented but never adequately explained, have left a scar on his reputation that only a phenomenal spring can wash away. Maybe.

It is hard to believe sometimes that we are talking about the same pitcher who won 18 games in 2010, his first full season as a starter, who took a no-hitter into the eighth inning in his second start of the season, and went into the All-Star break with an 11-2 record and 3.65 ERA.

But since then, Hughes is 12-10 with a 5.34 ERA, including last year's 5-5, 5.79, caused, ostensibly, by a mysterious loss in velocity for which no cause was ever really pinpointed. Instead, it was blamed on that generic ailment -- "dead-arm syndrome" -- that no one seems able to explain and always seems to vanish on its own.

It never really vanished for Hughes. Although he pitched better in the second half after missing three months of the season, his velocity never returned to where it was in 2010. As a result, his strikeout ratio, which reached an impressive 10 per 9 IP in 2009, plummeted to less than 6 last year.

Asked to specify what he would need to see from Hughes this spring, Girardi ticked off a laundry list of items: "Need to see his fastball, the location of it. The sharpness of his curveball. The command of his cutter. And continued improvement on his changeup. He needs to locate and get back to where he can put people away."

In other words, everything.

That is a tough enough assignment without having to pitch significantly better over the next six weeks than a wily veteran like Garcia to have a hope of securing the last spot in the rotation.

And if he doesn't? Then there is one of three choices: Back to the bullpen, down to Triple-A or onto the trading block. It is hardly the fate anyone would have predicted for Hughes a year ago at this time.

"I think your first responsibility is putting out what you feel the five best starters are," Girardi said when asked what he would do with Hughes if he came up short in the only real competition in Yankees camp this spring. "It's too early for me to think about anything like that."

It may be too early for Girardi, but for Phil Hughes, it's getting late.