Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Phil Hughes And The Hard Lesson Of Prospect Hugging

(Phil Hughes, master of packing on mass)

I'm usually pretty good about letting things go when it comes to the Yankees (except some of Joe's bullpen moves and sac bunts), but one thing that still stuck in my craw right now is the recent revelation that Phil Hughes came into camp out of shape in 2011 and the suggestion by the organization that he's going to bounce back in 2012 because he's spending this offseason training hard again and getting back to the shape he was in before 2010.

I'm on the record as stating that I'm an unabashed Hughes fan and apologist.  He's listed on my "AB4AR Man Crush Hall of Fame" and even this disastrous 2011 season and recent news that could possibly explain that disaster won't change that.  But 2011 and the constant ups and downs in Hughes' career over the past few seasons, after the high hopes that were held for him and the pedestal he was put on early in his Minor League career, are just the latest reminder that baseball prospects are as tricky and unpredictable a business as anything and we as fans would be wise to never get too attached to any of them.

Prospects typically don't pan out for one of three reasons: injury, lack of skill development, or lack of personal/professional development.  What makes Phil Hughes' case particularly frustrating is that he has been a victim (probably the wrong word) to all three of those pitfalls.  Since making his Major League debut in 2007, Hughes has suffered injuries to his hamstring, oblique muscle and ribs, and his throwing shoulder.  He's gone from a pitcher known for a great fastball and curveball with command to match to a pitcher with a questionable fastball, a curveball that is inconsistent, an array of other offspeed pitches that he has tinkered with on and off but none that he's used enough to become effective, and command that seems to come and go at any time.  And now he has confirmed some of the whispers that have been around regarding his work ethic by having the organization confirm that he came into camp out of shape in 2011 because he didn't go to the training facility that he used prior to his career-best 2010 season.

The resume that Hughes had prior to 2007 paints him as a can't-miss, sure thing, "no doubt about it" future All Star, Cy Young winner, and Hall of Famer:
  • 2004 High School 1st Team All-American
  • 2004 MLB Draft 1st-Round Pick (Age 18)
  • 2006- Named #1 Yankee Prospect by Baseball America, called one of the best pitching prospects in the Minors (Age 20)
  • 2007- Named #2 Prospect in all of baseball by Baseball Digest (Age 20)
  • 2007- Invited to Yankees' Spring Training (Age 20)
  • 2007- Threw 6.1 no-hit innings in just his 2nd career start (Age 20)
He was on the fast track to being the next great Yankee pitcher, right up there with Whitey Ford and Ron Guidry.  But since then things haven't panned out, for the reasons mentioned above.  This is not to say that Hughes is at complete fault for how his career path has gone in the Majors.  It's not like the guy wanted and tried to pull his hamstring or break his ribs.  It just happened.  And the Yankees certainly didn't do him any favors by shuttling him from the rotation to the bullpen and back from '09 to 2010.  But when a prospect is as hyped as Hughes was, and you buy into that hype as much as I did, and then the performance doesn't match the hype, it's a crushing blow to the fan ego.

I should be wearing Phil Hughes jerseys to the office at work and boring all my friends to tears with stories about how I always knew he was going to be this good because of his MiL K rates as he prepares for another season as the Yankees' ace.  Instead, I'm sobbing into a pillow at night while listening to "Unbreak My Heart" by Toni Braxton after each of his inefficient 4-inning outings and cursing myself for being duped while I read that Hughes is going to a glorified fat camp in California and will come into the 2012 season once again on the fringe of making the rotation.  It all adds up to the same conclusion you have to come to with prospects, that conclusion being that you just never know. 

And it is this not knowing that we as Yankee fans must always be mindful of and remember when evaluating prospects.  Manny Banuelos could be the second coming of Johan Santana or he could be a pile of crap.  Mason Williams might turn into the next Ken Griffey Jr. or he might be bagging my groceries in three years.  Dante Bichette Jr. could become a better player than his old man or he could break his leg in a car accident when somebody runs a red light and never play again.

There are so many factors, both internal in terms of a player's own makeup and external in terms of the situation they're in, the coaching they receive, and the luck (good or bad) they experience, that contribute to how his career plays out.  And there's no way for us to know how all of those factors are going to add up for each player.  Because of this, we cannot allow ourselves as fans to get too attached to any prospect, no matter how amazing his stats look or how high his ceiling is.  Phil Hughes is just the latest example, and I'm as guilty as anybody for drinking the Hughes-Aid for as long as I have.  And now I have nobody but to blame but myself for being hurt by Phil and his inability to live up to the hype.

Prospects are like hot girls you meet at the bar who turn out to be crazy.  You can talk to them and about them, look at them, have fun with them.  But don't get too attached to them.  Because more often than not, you're just going to end up getting hurt if you do.

Yankees Sticking It To The 99%

From the team's press release earlier today announcing ticket pricing updates for 2012:

"All seats in the Field Level between the bases will be unchanged or reduced, while seats in the Field Level outfield sections located in fair territory (Sections 103-104 and 132-136) will have price reductions ranging from $10 to $35.  Grandstand Level seats beyond the bases will remain at $20, while Grandstand Level seats between the bases will be $28. Non-obstructed Bleachers tickets will increase by $5."

Non-obstructed bleacher tickets will increase by five bucks?  Are you serious?  Last time I checked, we were still living in a recession, people can't find jobs, everything at The Stadium is already grossly overpriced, and now the Yankees want to jack up the price of the most affordable tickets in the place?

For shame, Yankees.  For shame.

Examining Possible Eduardo Nunez Trade Matches With The Braves

The biggest story to come out this past weekend was probably the "Braves being interested in Eduardo Nunez" rumors that sprouted up after the infamous "sources" stated that Atlanta was interested in the Yankees' utility infielder as a replacement for Alex Gonzalez at short.  Personally, I still can't fathom why so many teams and fans are so high on Nunez, but if this is real then it's certainly a path the Yankees should consider pursuing.  And with the slow pace that the Hot Stove Season is moving at right now, why not play the hypothetical trade game and look for potential trade pieces from Atlanta's side for Nunez.  Given the Yankees' needs this offseason, there are a few interesting possibilities out there on the Braves roster.

Brooks Conrad- 2B/3B

Hey, why not swap one utility guy for another?  Conrad is stuck behind Dan Uggla at 2nd and the Chipper Jones/Martin Prado duo at 3rd, and he would fit the bill of a solid defensive utility infielder that Nunez currently does not.

Conrad's also not a complete waste of space at the plate.  He's a switch hitter with good numbers against lefties (even if it was in just 24 AB in 2011) and the first thing that stands out is his BB rate, which has jumped to 9.0% in 2010 and 12.3% in 2011 as he started to get more plate appearances.  He also cut down on the K % a bit in 2011, a sign that even at 31 Conrad has some room to improve at the plate, and his contact rates show a guy who doesn't make a lot of bad contact on pitches out of the zone.  His GB/FB rate is solid, and he's got some pop in his bat for a little guy (career .199 ISO), so an appointment or two with renowned hitting doctor Kevin Long could help him maximize his skill set and tailor it to hitting in Yankee Stadium while cutting down on the swings and misses.

As a backup, Conrad brings more to the table than he takes off of it.  He can swing the bat a little, draws walks, can play 2 infield positions and probably SS if needed, and runs the bases well.  The addition of Conrad would cover the weaknesses present in Nunez's game that became more obvious when he was forced to play every day last season, and Conrad would have to be considered an upgrade at the utility IF position over the likes of Brandon Laird and Ramiro Pena.  Being an older player, the Yankees might even have room to get another prospect, albeit a low-level one, included in the deal for the younger Nunez if the Braves are that in love with him.

Jair Jurrjens- SP

This is the name that everybody talks about in relation to any potential trade with the Braves. And they are reportedly already entertaining offers for the 25-year-old righty, so I might as well discuss him.

On the surface, Jurrjens doesn't appear to be a good fit for the Yankees.  His fastball velocity and K/9 dropped to career-lows in 2011 at 89.1 MPH and 5.33 respectively, likely a result of the continuing injury issues that plague him.  At such a young age arm issues raise a big red flag, particularly when they appear to already be sapping a pitcher of his stuff.  And Jurrjens' inconsistent GB/FB rates should raise concern as to how his game would translate to pitching in the AL East and Yankee Stadium, especially if he's going to be pitching with a diminished fastball.

That being said, there are some things to like about Jurrjens.  He made a big improvement in cutting down on his walks in 2011, posting a career-best 2.61 BB/9.  And he is just 25 years old, presumably approaching the prime of his career with an already mature approach on the mound.  Working with Larry Rothschild could be just the thing Jurrjens needs to get the most out of his stuff and become a consistently effective pitcher.  And adding him through a trade lessens the commitment and risk the Yankees take on in terms of years and money.  He might not fit the bill of top-tier starter that the Yankees are looking for, but he's also not Brien Gordon or Sidney Ponson.  You can't say that Jurrjens in 2012 isn't a better deal than Freddy in 2011.

Arodys Vizcaino- RHP

This one is admittedly a bit of a pipe dream, but it would be nice to see if the Braves were interested in moving the kid who was a key prospect piece in the fateful Javy Vazquez Reunion Tour trade of a couple years ago.  Bringing Vizcaino back could be a way for Cash to help right some of the wrongs of that trade, and with where Vizcaino is with the Braves right now it isn't completely outside the realm of possibilities.

The Braves moved Vizcaino quickly through their system this year, giving him stops at all 3 MiL levels before calling him up for an audition late in the season.  Vizcaino was impressive in 97 combined MiL innings, striking out 100 while walking just 28.  But as he moved up through the system, he started being used more as a reliever than a starter.  And his 17.1 IP at the Major League level in 2011 were all as a reliever, with his BB/9 increasing dramatically to 4.67 while his K/9 dipped slightly to 8.83, still a good number but not representative of the stuff and command combo he exhibited in the Minors.

This transition from starter to reliever could signify some uncertainty in Atlanta as to how they see Vizcaino being used at the Major League level.  The trade of Derek Lowe could signify a willingness to let him compete for a rotation spot in 2012, but utilizing him as a reliever late in 2011 probably did more harm than good to his development as a starter, and the Atlanta bullpen is a bit crowded right now with the emergence of Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty, and Christhian Martinez in 2011.  If there is some internal waffling on what Vizcaino's future holds with the organization, now would be a perfect time for the Yankees to capitalize and bring his name up in discussions.

These are just 3 names that stood out most to me in looking at Atlanta's current roster.  I'm sure we could dig deeper into their farm system and find some attractive pieces as well or hypothesize about how to include Jason Heyward into a deal.  But a trade involving Eduardo Nunez isn't likely to be a blockbuster, and it would behoove the Yankees to not try to make it one and risk bringing guys like ManBan and Dellin Betances into the discussion.  They have needs, the Braves apparently have a want in Nunez, and that should be the main focus of the discussions.  While Atlanta currently has a high asking price for Jurrjens, that should come down if and when talks become real, and including guys like Conrad and Vizcaino in the talks should still allow the Yankees room to use their mid-level pieces to finish a deal if a trade became that involved.  Going back to what I said last week and what anybody with any sense would say, for the right deal nobody should be off the table.  And from a Yankee perspective, adding value at their positions of need for Eduardo Nunez would be the right deal.