It wasn't too long ago that the Yankees’ bullpen was the one thing holding them back from realizing their full potential. Filled with a bunch of firestarters rather than firemen, it was an adventure every time Joe Girardi signaled to the 'pen, and it usually resulted in a few earned runs.
But after Chien-Ming Wang's inconsistencies and injuries led to the conversion of Phil Hughes from starter to reliever, the Yankees 'pen has boasted arguably the best back end of a bullpen in all of baseball. And they have Hughes to thank for that.
As a reliever, Hughes has added life to his fastball. Now it’s clocked in the mid-to-high 90s rather than the low 90s. His curveball has been even more devastating with the difference of speed between the heater and breaking ball. With his "come on and hit it approach," Hughes is throwing like a different pitcher — displaying the confidence he showed prior to his injury-riddled 2008 season.
Out of the bullpen, Hughes has tossed 21 1/3 innings, allowing two earned runs for a 0.84 ERA. He has allowed 11 hits, while striking out 27 and walking just five, and hitters are batting a miniscule .149 against him.
In his last 13 appearances, Hughes has pitched 16 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings. Outside of Mariano Rivera, no Yankees reliever has posted numbers like this since the championship years. That is, except Joba Chamberlain.
Chamberlain and Hughes have grown to have a lot in common over the past few seasons, with their reversal of roles playing a big part in that.
Chamberlain, 24, debuted in the majors as a reliever (though a starter in the minors) only to be moved to the rotation. Hughes, 23, on the other hand, debuted as a starter only to be moved to the bullpen. And now both youngsters have significant jobs in a heated pennant race, pitching in roles that were reversed when the Yankees last played in October in '07.
But Hughes' time in the bullpen isn't expected to last forever, the same way Girardi and Brian Cashman made their plans known to develop Joba as a starter.
With Wang out indefinitely, Girardi has made it clear the Yankees will not send Hughes to Triple-A to stretch him out, meaning he will be a reliever for the rest of the season. However after that, the Yankees have the intentions of bringing him back as a starter for the start of the 2010 season.
Even though Hughes is projected as a front-end starter for his career, it won't stop the conversations about whether the Yankees should keep him in the 'pen. The identical debate resulted in Chamberlain becoming a household name.
Come April of next season, will the Yankees feel the heat with their decision to return Hughes to the rotation like they did with Chamberlain earlier this season? They'll have to cross that bridge when they get to it, because for now, Hughes is part of a more important bridge: the one to Rivera. And for now, there's no reason to change that.