(No, not that gut)
Cue the John Cena music, because Phil Hughes' time is up and his time is now. In his 7-year professional career, Hughes has been a 1st-round draft pick, a top-flight Yankee prospect, a top 5 blue chip prospect in all of baseball, a future ace, a promising young arm, an injury-prone question mark, a dominant reliever, an encouraging project, an out-of-shape failure, and now a solid middle-of-the-rotation contributor. He's had enough ups and downs, changes to his role and pitching style, and injury problems to last an entire career and yet he's still only 26 years old. Hughes has bounced back nicely in 2012 after last year's disaster, and he now finds himself rapidly approaching a crossroads in his career path as it relates to being a New York Yankee.
If the playoffs started today, Hughes would be the no-doubt 3rd starter for the Yankees. Yes, Andy Pettitte's injury has something to do with that, but Hughes has pitched well enough to earn himself a spot in any postseason rotation regardless of who's healthy and who's not. He's made all 26 of his scheduled starts this season, pitched a healthy 156.2 innings in those starts, and has been pretty damn effective and consistent overall. Hughes has 19 starts where he's allowed 3 ER or fewer, and in 15 of those starts he's also pitched 6 innings or more. It's not the type of "future ace" output that was projected for him while he was still a prospect, but it's solid 3rd-starter production and equal to, if not better than Hughes' career-best 2010 campaign. His K rate (7.47 K/9) is a tick up from that year, his BB rate (2.18 BB/9) is down, and only Hughes' insanely high 1.72 HR/9 is keeping his 4.02/4.73/4.48 slash from besting his 2010 line across the board.
The position in which Hughes now finds himself is one that could have a very big impact on the outcome of the Yankees' season. He, along with Hiroki Kuroda, has been a point of consistency and reliability for the rotation this season, both in terms of performance and durability. With Pettitte and Nova still out, the injury jury still out on CC (at least for me), and the rest of roster wallowing in mediocrity, the Yankees not only need Hughes to stay healthy and stay in the rotation in September, they need him to keep pitching well. He's finally committed to using his changeup regularly in his last handful of starts, and he unveiled "The Slutter" in his last outing on Tuesday. At long last, Phil appears to be putting it all together and doing it at a most critical time for his ballclub.
Hughes' next scheduled start is Monday at Tampa. After that he's set up to make 5 more starts, assuming he stays in his scheduled spot in the rotation if/when Pettitte and Nova return. Those starts are at Baltimore, home against Tampa, home against Toronto, at Minnesota, at Toronto; 6 starts total, 5 against AL East opponents, and the first 3 against the 2 teams right behind the Yankees in the race for the division title. This last month will be the greatest test yet to see how real Hughes' growth this season has been. Can he stick with his changeup in a pressure situation of a close game against the Rays where he really should throw it? Will he continue to throw his slider/cutter hybrid as a 4th pitch to keep hitters guessing in fastball counts? Can he string together more good starts in a situation where his team needs good starting pitching and kinda sorta live up to a fraction of the hype by helping them secure a division title?
Bigger picture, can Hughes do enough to show the Yankees that he deserves to stay in the Bronx long-term? That's a question and a storyline that's very much in play for both Hughes and the Yankees and something that will become a hot topic sooner rather than later. Hughes is on a 1-year, $3.2 million deal this season, and will be arbitration-eligible for the final time in 2013. After that, it's off to mystical Free Agentland and there are going to be some hard decisions to make. Hughes will be 27 and could be a very attractive option to many teams. His stuff could play up over in the National League or in a stadium not so prone to the long ball, and a multi-year deal worth $8-10 million is not out of the question, especially if Hughes' adjustments this season translate into a successful year in 2013.
The Yanks will most likely have CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, and Ivan Nova for sure in their 2014 rotation, but outside of them everything is unknown. All signs point to them passing on what's left of this year's upcoming free agent pitching crop, and depending on how their efforts to address filling potential lineup holes go, shelling out $10 mil + for more years of Hughes could put the squeeze on the $189 million plan. Teams are almost always more inclined to keep their homegrown pitchers, but with what Hughes is and has become compared to what he was projected to be, that inclination might not be so strong for a front office on a budget. What Hughes does in these final 6 starts and any subsequent starts after the regular season could go a long way in determining how much more time he'll spend in pinstripes.