NEW YORK -- Earlier this year, when Chien-Ming Wang hit the disabled list and the Yankees needed a starting pitcher to take his place, they did what teams have done for decades. They dipped down into their farm system and called up the promising youngster who was pitching the best. Phil Hughes did a fine job filling in until Wang was ready to return from injury, and the theory and system seemed to work as it should.
Now, Wang is hurt again. But the Yankees can't dip down for Hughes again because they've stashed Hughes in their bullpen since Wang came back, imperiling the development of one of their best young arms and weakening them in the most important aspect of the game: starting pitching.
The worst part is that the Yankees will try to convince you that this all makes sense.
"The bullpen's been a strength for us," Joe Girardi said Monday morning at Yankee Stadium, discussing why Hughes and Alfredo Aceves would likely not be options to start Thursday's game in Wang's place or take a spot in the rotation. "Do you upset that for one, two or three times through?"
Maybe not, but Wang has a shoulder injury, and there's a pretty good chance this isn't just going to be one, two or three times through the rotation. Wang is in the middle of a nightmare year in which his chances to help the Yankees are dwindling by the week. That's a shame, but it's an eventuality for which the Yankees were, at one time, prepared. They had Hughes in Triple-A, capable and ready to step in when needed.
But they screwed up. They let fear and fan bluster dictate their roster construction. They were struggling in the seventh and eighth innings, so they activated Wang too soon and used him in the bullpen. Before long, they realized they had to put him back in the rotation even if he wasn't ready, so they did. But instead of sending Hughes back to the Minors where he could continue to pile up innings and be ready for the next time they needed a starter, they put him in the bullpen.
Then, the worst possible thing happened. Hughes turned out to be great in the bullpen. And since the Yankees and their fans live in a bizarre fantasy world in which the eighth inning has somehow become more important than the first seven, this meant that there was no way they could move him. Hallelujah, the eighth-inning problem is solved, ladies and gentlemen! Our long national nightmare is over!
Only problem is now, it looks like Sergio Mitre will start Thursday. Which means the starting rotation, which had been a strength for the Yankees, is suddenly not. (At least not on Thursday.)
Had the Yankees shown the guts of their conviction and stuck to their plans, they'd have sent Hughes back to the Minors when Wang went back into the rotation and figured out the eighth inning the way almost every other team in baseball does -- matchups, hot hand, whatever. You pay your manager to get through the seventh and eighth. If the pitchers he had at his disposal there were that good, they'd be starters or relievers. There's a reason games are decided in those innings, and it's because that's where the pitching is the weakest. It's a fact, but it's one that the Yankees can't seem to grasp.
Now, Hughes and Aceves will be available to protect a seventh- or eighth-inning lead Thursday, because the bullpen is a strength and Girardi doesn't want to mess with it.
Great. But their chances of actually having a lead in the seventh or eighth have dwindled.
How does that make any sense?