(Courtesy of The AP)
Don't look now, but Phil Hughes- the man involved in his 3rd straight rotation competition, the man coming off the worst year of his professional career, the man who's being talked about as the leading candidate to either be sent to the bullpen, sent to the minors, or traded if he doesn't pitch well this year- has been the best starting pitcher in Yankee camp.
I know technically he's only made two starts, but in the other two outings where he backed up CC he was working as a starter and that's good enough for me. After yesterday's 5-inning performance he has now thrown the most innings out of all the starting rotation contenders (with a game in hand on CC and Kuroda) with 13.1, and he has been the most consistent pitcher of the group. He's the only one with a WHIP below 1.00, he's attacking hitters and throwing a lot of strikes, and if it wasn't for a poorly placed cutter to Matt Joyce yesterday he would only have 1 ER allowed on his ledger.
More important than that, though, is the fact that his stuff is back. Hughes' velocity on his fastball has been sitting 91-93 since the first time he took the mound, with a 94 here and there, which is right where he needs to live to be effective. His curveball has also looked much sharper than it did last year, and he's getting bad swings on it. And his changeup, a pitch that we've been waiting to see him use consistently for a couple years now, has evolved into a pitch that Hughes is confident in and willing to throw. I specifically remember him getting Evan Longoria to fly out weakly on a change yesterday as well as Joyce striking out swinging on it in the at-bat after his HR. He's working the cutter as well, but if Hughes can mix fastball-curveball-changeup consistently he can be very good.
This is the Phil Hughes we were expecting to see last year. He still has a lot to prove and it won't be fair to say he's "back" until he does it in the regular season, but the way he looks and the way he's pitching this spring certainly has to inspire confidence that he's on the right track. Freddy's hand injury probably sealed the deal for him, but even if he didn't get hurt it should be a no-brainer that Hughes gets a spot in the rotation to open the season.