If this were the old days, you know what Phil Hughes would be doing right now? He'd be on his way to the airport, headed to Tampa for a stint at the much-hyped (but hardly renowned) Billy Connors Training Camp. Because when George Steinbrenner was alive and well, that was the equivalent of the Yankees pitching halfway house; not prison so much as a chance to work your way back into the good graces of the Boss by hanging out with one of his friends.
Back then, the Yankees sent many pitchers to Connors, who was one of several Steinbrenner cronies lingering in Tampa. Connors was (allegedly) a pitching guru, and so despite the infighting it caused between the New York and Tampa factions of the organization, Steinbrenner would often demand that struggling pitchers be sent to Connors for evaluation. (Most famously, Steinbrenner overruled Joe Torre and Mel Stottlemyre in 2003 when they wanted to send Jose Contreras to Triple-A and ordered Contreras to be sent to Connors instead.)
The results were -- of course -- mixed, and most observers were loath to actually give Connors much credit for turning anyone around. Often times, organizational insiders said the biggest factor in a pitcher rediscovering something came from just taking a break. Getting away from the big-league pressure and questions and expectations for a few days, and working -- in relative solitude -- on rediscovering that which got the guy to the Majors in the first place.
Which brings us, naturally, to Hughes. After Thursday's altogether mediocre four-plus innings against the Orioles, the 24-year-old righthander is very clearly the Yankees' biggest early-season concern, most notably because he was supposed to be one of the few Yankees givens in the starting rotation. Ivan Nova? Freddy Garcia? A.J. Burnett? They were the question marks. Not Hughes. Not after what he did last year.
Except it hasn't happened. And after Thursday night's game, another game where Hughes couldn't seem to consistently throw his fastball harder than 90 mph, the questions were pointed: Does Hughes need to go to the bullpen? Does he need a trip to the Minor Leagues?
"We'll talk about it," General Manager Brian Cashman told reporters when asked about any and all alternatives to ... well, to putting Hughes back on the mound again right away.
"I don't even know what to say," Hughes said in his own media scrum.
At this point, there is plenty of speculation but little certainty about what is going on with Hughes. Here is what we do know: Both he and the Yankees say he isn't hurt. So, if you believe that he is, in fact, healthy, than you believe that a 24-year-old has suddenly (virtually out of nowhere) lost life on his fastball.
Unheard of? No. And if that is indeed the case, than it is likely a small mechanical glitch, magnified by the rising pressure and panic that comes with one start after another after another. As Hughes told me last week in Boston, there is some measure of timing to this whole thing too: If he hit a patch like this last August, after starting the season as strongly as he had, the scrutiny would surely be less than it is now (where it is quickly becoming an issue of epic concern).
Fatigue is a reasonable concern, too. Hughes threw 176 1/3 innings in 2010, or just 16 fewer than he threw in the previous three years in the Majors combined, so maybe this is just the result of a dead -- or deadening -- arm?
Hughes is doing his best to stay strong, telling reporters he is "fairly confident it will turn" for him. He's also realistic, saying he will do whatever the team tells him to do.
With two off days for the Yankees next week, this might be the best time to pull Hughes out of the rotation. Maybe even let him go home to Tampa, where he has an apartment, and try to rest before taking a spotlight-free gaze at his motion.
No, he doesn't need to talk to Billy Connors -- actually, he probably shouldn't -- but this is one time where the old-school concept isn't such a bad idea.
At 24 years old, it's hard to believe Hughes is finished. More likely he just needs a break.