Phil Hughes’ Contract Year Conundrum With The New York Yankees

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Phil Hughes has called the New York Yankees “a second home”, and as he heads into free agency for the first time in his career, the former top pitching prospect has expressed his preference in the long-term prospect of playing for the team the drafted him,

Naturally, the best way to do that is for Hughes to pitch well enough to show the Yankees that he’s worth keeping, yes?

Well, it’s not that simple, unfortunately. Even with Andy Pettitte‘s $12 million salary coming off the books with the lefty’s potential retirement after 2013, the Yankees may not necessarily want to retain Hughes, who avoided arbitration with the team in his final year of eligibility with a one-year, $7.15 million deal.

That’s a significant raise over his $3.2 million salary in 2012, and barring a serious setback in his contract year, the next deal that Hughes signs will be worth that much more.

It may get to a point that the Yankees may have little choice than to let the righty go. This is a team that hasn’t been gun-shy when it comes to spending money on big contracts for a long time, but even the Yankees have limits, and that limit might be pushed with the need to sign Robinson Cano, the Bronx Bombers’ best player on the field, to a long-term extension.

There’s been a lot of talk about the $189 million payroll guideline that the team wants to get down to, and Hughes might just be one of players who will be affected by the Yankees’ efforts to keep its spending under control.

Hughes will only be 26 when the season starts, and is coming off a bounce-back season that saw him overcome a rough start to finish with a 4.23/1.26 ERA/WHIP, and a career-best 3.59 K/BB over a career-high 191.1 innings. That’s a big step forward for the right-hander, but at which point will he be valuable enough for the Yankees that they’d have no choice but to sign him after 2013?

If Hughes has a regression like he did in 2011, his chances to stick with the team are virtually nil, even if they’ve stuck with him through the ups and downs to this point.

On the other hand, if he stays close to his 2012 results, the team may want to continuing with Ivan Nova, who has shown similar promise, but won’t become a free agent until 2017.

If Phil Hughes exceeds expectations by a notable margin, but not to the point where he’s a star (say, a 3.5 fWAR season)? Well, that’s iffy too, as the team does not currently have any other long-term commitments its starting rotation outside of C.C. Sabathia, and may not want to sign Hughes to an Edwin Jackson-type contract to be a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher, especially if Michael Pineda can come back and be healthy.

To really force the Yankees’ hand, Hughes may have to prove to be an invaluable force on the mound, and he hasn’t been that since 2010, when he was one of the game’s best for the first two months of the season, before being named to the All-Star team.

A full season like those two months will put the impetus on the Yankees to get a deal done; otherwise, regardless of how else Hughes performs in 2013, his time with the Yankees may end at the conclusion of the season.

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