The 2009 Yankees captured glory with a World Series title, getting a nine-year monkey off the organization’s back in the process, so tonight’s ALCS Game 6 against the Rangers hardly bears the sense of urgency that a similarly vulnerable position would have a year ago. There aren’t any grace periods in the Bronx, necessarily, but elimination from the ALCS shouldn’t prompt fan vitriol or any hasty offseason moves, either.
But there’s a notable, subtle importance with respect to the young man who will take the ball for the Bronx Bombers in Game 6, Phil Hughes. The 24-year-old righty very much embodies the ways in which the 2010 version of the Yankees differ from their recent counterparts — as recently as 2009, in fact. Hughes is the face of the new Yankees, who aren’t so different from the old Yankees (insofar as they’re not afraid to shop in the deep end of the free-agent pool) except that, in some ways, Hughes’ long-awaited arrival onto this stage probably would not — could not — have happened as recently as, say, six years ago.
During that time, there was a pervasive, lingering sense of an organizational disconnect, whereby a disjointed jumble of hard-to-like veterans was slapped haphazardly together and expected to not only win but to win like Yankees, and it just didn’t fit. They were decidedly un-Yankee-like. Granted, they were living up to a nearly impossible standard set by the preceding dynasty teams, but the Jason Giambis and Mike Mussinas and Kevin Browns and Gary Sheffields and Randy Johnsons of the world only served to bring the Yankees close enough to where they needed another big-name guy to push them over the top.
Don’t get me wrong: The mid-aughts Bombers weren’t bad, by any means — they appeared in the postseason every year until 2008, and with a break or two here or there, they likely could have won a couple more World Series, chiefly in 2003 and ’04. But they didn’t. All those things that went right for them between 1996-200 simply weren’t going right for them anymore.
Since cementing his position as the primary personnel decision-maker a few years back, general manager Brian Cashman has managed to respectably decelerate that runaway train, to slow it all down and bring a relative halt to the madness. He’s not a commanding presence. In fact, he’s sort of aloof and sometimes off-putting. But despite his wild success, Cashman comes across as admirably humble and, most importantly, respectful of what it takes to build a winner.
Cashman props up his farm, invests in scouting and seems to covet recouping compensatory Draft picks for departed free agents. Above all, for the sake of this piece, it’s worth mentioning that Cashman and the Yanks resisted the all-too-compelling temptation to deal either Joba Chamberlain — who once could have fetched a king’s ransom — and Hughes, whom the Twins reportedly sought as part of a package deal for Johan Santana following the 2007 season. That was telling. It felt like there was no way the Yankees could resist the temptation to part with these promising young players in exchange for yet another All-Star. You don’t pass on Santana types when they come across your desk, because they don’t come across your desk every day.
Except the Yankees did. Cashman stayed the course.
In the wake of their World Series celebration last offseason, the Yankees largely abstained from the heavy spending that marked their previous winter, when they splurged after falling short of the postseason for the first time since 1993. Frankly, they abstained because there wasn’t much out there that interested them, but that, too, was telling in itself — the Yanks used to spend simply for the sake of it. This time around, they were more prudent, passing on Jason Bay and Matt Holliday, pricey left fielders who could have fit the bill for a hastier front office.
Instead, a couple of lineup mainstays in Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, each of whom contributed greatly to capturing the organization’s 27th championship, were quietly told thanks but no thanks. Cashman continued his concerted effort to get younger, cheaper, better and just plain old different at various positions on his roster. Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson were given more playing time and acquired, respectively, to improve the outfield defense and add a versatile offensive dimension previously for wont — speed. Javier Vazquez was reacquired after an outstanding season in Atlanta, the idea there being that the upside of the one-year experiment (he’s a free agent after 2010) was too rich to pass on. The rotation, on paper, was going to be dominant, and Hughes, languishing as sort of a post-hype sleeper, was named the fifth starter (Chamberlain’s fall from grace was in full swing), but I’m not sure anyone expected too much.
He’d been the crown jewel of the farm in 2006, (foolishly) compared to Roger Clemens. Incredibly, he was working on a no-hitter in his second Major League start (against these Rangers, ironically) in 2007, but he exited that game on account of a fairly serious hamstring strain with 6 1/3 hitless ball under his belt. Just like that, he went from potentially making history to losing a chunk of his rookie season to injury. He came back later that season and turned in a memorable postseason performance in the ALDS against the Indians, earning a win in long relief, but the cycle of uncertainty had begun.
2008 saw more time lost to injury and additional talk of innings limits and, well, the kind of inconsistencies you expect of a 22-year-old kid. As I mentioned earlier, the Yankees didn’t make the postseason that year, and there was a palpable feeling of frustration among the Yankees and their fans that Hughes and Chamberlain and the since-departed Ian Kennedy were the culprits; indeed, the experiment with a pitching youth movement had not gone as well as hoped.
The Yankees responded by signing CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett in the offseason, casting doubt as to which of Hughes and Chamberlain would start and which would relieve. Ironically, after he struggled in the rotation early in the season and with an innings cap looming, Hughes was shuttled to the ‘pen, where he positively flourished and assumed the role of setup man for Mariano Rivera, a move that can be cited as a turning point in the Yankees’ march to a triumph in the Fall Classic.
This year, with expectations understandably tempered, Hughes won the No. 5 starter’s job largely by default coming out of Spring Training, but he carried over the momentum from his impressive foray into relief work, posting a solid 102 ERA+ in 176 1/3 innings and earning an All-Star berth.
And now, after what’s felt like a never-ending journey from unfairly overhyped prospect to a useful Major League starter, Hughes readies for the biggest outing of his career. Sure, Vazquez’s second flop in as many stints in New York and A.J. Burnett’s Oliver Perez impersonation conspired to hasten things a bit; ideally, you’d have to think the Yankees would have preferred to have Vazquez in this spot or perhaps even Burnett, but Hughes was going to be counted upon sooner or later. He was always lingering in the background, part of the Yankees’ and Cashman’s grand scheme.
For better or worse, Hughes will be championed or vilified depending upon how he fares tonight — his start is already being characterized as a shot at redemption after he was hit hard in Game 2 and beaten by Colby Lewis, the Rangers starter who’s taken his own circuitous path to success. But really, with Hughes looking like a viable, long-term candidate to capably fill a spot in the Yanks’ rotation, it’s already a minor victory for the Yankees — the new Yankees — who exhibited admirable patience in developing the young man.