Commentary

Yanks' rotation suddenly a weakness

Pineda is finished, Hughes is struggling and Pettitte's not ready for prime time, yet

Updated: April 26, 2012, 2:09 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- On Wednesday, you could have crisscrossed halfway around this big country of ours, and almost anywhere you landed, there was a Bad Yankees Pitching story.

The worst one, of course, was in Manhattan, where it was determined that Michael Pineda -- who not long ago was expected to be the No. 2 starter on the Yankees' staff in 2012 -- won't even throw his first pitch for them until sometime in 2013.

The most encouraging one came out of Trenton, N.J., where Andy Pettitte worked five innings against some Double-A ballplayers, after which his boss declared him close, but not quite ready for prime time. Still, for a team as desperate for pitching as the Yankees are, it was a little disturbing to learn that Pettitte's return to the big club is at least three starts away.

[+] EnlargePhil Hughes
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezPhil Hughes was not happy to be lifted from the game in the third inning Wednesday night.

Which brings us to the heart of Texas, where the story of Phil Hughes' night falls somewhere in the middle. Not nearly so catastrophic as Pineda's, nor as encouraging as Pettitte's.

In fact, the best word to describe what happened to Hughes and the Yankees in Wednesday night's 7-3 loss to the Texas Rangers is probably the one Hughes chose to describe it himself: mystifying.

For the fourth time in four starts, Hughes got roughed up. But whereas the Yankees could find a silver lining in Hughes' previous outing -- a 5 1/3-inning, six-earned run mess redeemed only by the fact that the Yankees beat the Twins 7-6, thanks to three Curtis Granderson home runs -- there really was no upside to this one.

In fact, it was so bad that Russell Martin, Hughes' catcher in the game, raised the most disturbing comparison a Yankees fan could ever hope to hear. In trying to describe what went wrong in Hughes' 2 1/3-inning, four-run stint, Martin said, "A.J. had the same problem at times.''

A.J., of course, is A.J. Burnett, a name Yankees fans had hoped they would never hear again after the maddening right-hander was traded to Pittsburgh this winter.

Martin then tried to backpedal somewhat, saying that both Hughes and Burnett had great fastballs that they sometimes left over the plate. But the deed was done.

As if Yankees fans didn't have enough to worry about already in regards to the starting pitching, now someone had raised the prospect of Phil Hughes as the next A.J.

It's probably not that bad, of course. But still, there is something up with Phil Hughes that is not as easily explained away as his struggles of last year. Those, at least, had a ready-made cause: the sudden and mysterious loss of velocity on his fastball.

This spring Hughes relocated his fastball, but now he has lost his location. "I've got to get both of them right at the same time,'' he said. "If one of them is there and one of them's not, it's tough to pitch that way."

This would not be so worrisome a problem if the rest of the Yankees' rotation was pitching the way it was expected to or if Pineda was healthy. But it's not and he isn't, so an effective Phil Hughes becomes that much more important to long-term Yankees success.

"It hasn't been great, and we've still found a way to get to 10-8,'' Joe Girardi said. "So I got to believe brighter days are ahead for our rotation.''

And to think that six weeks ago, Girardi had too much starting pitching and his biggest worry was how he was going to break the news to someone that there just weren't enough jobs to go around.

Now, with Pineda needing surgery to repair a torn labrum and out until at least next May, and with Pettitte between three weeks and a month away from riding in to rescue the season, Girardi needs not only Phil Hughes but Freddy Garcia to pull it together, and for Hiroki Kuroda to string two good starts back to back.

Because right now, the Yankees have just two starters they can trust: CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova.

That is why, when Girardi said after the game, "Our plan is to send [Hughes] out there again,'' you really had to fight the impulse to shoot back, "What other choice do you have?''

For a while, some sentiment had been building that perhaps David Phelps, a rookie right-hander who made the club in spring training as a long reliever, might be a viable substitute in the rotation if Hughes or Garcia faltered.

But he, too, got shelled in Arlington on Wednesday night, allowing two long home runs to Mike Napoli and Mitch Moreland, and three runs overall in 2 1/3 innings.

So for now, it looks as if Girardi will be forced to play the hand he has been dealt, and it is certainly not five aces.

"We need some guys to step up,'' he said.

Girardi's day started off badly when his worst fears concerning Pineda were confirmed by Dr. David Altchek, the Mets' team physician, who, at the request of Pineda and his agent, read the MRI conducted Tuesday by the Yankees' Dr. Chris Ahmad.

Altchek saw what Ahmad had seen -- an anterior labral tear in Pineda's right shoulder, an injury that must be repaired surgically and, unlike elbow injuries requiring Tommy John surgery, is not one from which a full recovery is a slam-dunk.

A few pitchers have recovered fully and pitched well for years afterward, guys such as Curt Schilling and Chris Carpenter and Trevor Hoffman. A few others, such as Matt Clement and Mark Prior and Jason Schmidt, never threw another meaningful pitch in the major leagues.

So there was that. Then Pettitte threw his allotted 81 pitches, but they carried him through only five innings, in which he allowed seven hits and four runs (three earned). Afterward, Brian Cashman said he expected Pettitte to need at least three more minor league starts. "There is not going to be any urgency,'' he said.

But he had no way of knowing that 1,200 miles to the southwest, Hughes was getting lit up, and in the midst of a start only incrementally better than last year's. After three starts last April, Hughes was 1-3 with a 13.94 ERA and headed for three months on the DL.

After four starts this April, he is 1-3 with a 7.88 ERA and headed back out to the mound in five days, because right now, the Yankees have no one better to replace him with.

That might not be the worst news Yankees fans have heard all day, but on most days, it would be.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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