Though they might not have the same deep pockets as the Bronx Bombers, the Pittsburgh Pirates have already poached their share of former talents from the New York Yankees, turning former busts into make-good stories that ultimately helped the team to its best season in decades this year.
And if the plan has worked over the past couple of seasons, why stop doing it?
In fact, considering what a ground of redemption that PNC Park has been for former players in pinstripes, you’d have to think that Phil Hughes would be chomping at the bits and waiting for Neal Huntington to give him a call. Ironically, that opportunity might end up hinging on the decision of A.J. Burnett, another former Yankees pitcher whose late-career turnaround was sparked by a move to Pittsburgh.
The team would certainly like to have him back, but you don’t have to read too much between the lines of the decision not to give the potentially-retiring veteran a qualifying offer to see that money might be an issue; in fact, Huntington himself alluded to as much last week, telling David Todd of 970 ESPN that even the projected payroll increase doesn’t have room for a $14 million pitcher — market rate or not.
That’s one issue the GM won’t have with Hughes, who will sign high next deal at a relative bargain given the upside he still has.
Yes, while it certainly may not seem like it because that the former top prospect has been in the bigs since 21, the right-hander remains a talented pitcher … even if two of his last three seasons have seen ERAs over 5.00. There are numerous reasons that explain his struggles, but I think a good summary would probably be a mix of health, Yankee Stadium, and just generally botched pitcher development.
Pitching in New York is a different kind of beast (as former Yankees ‘busts’ like Javier Vazquez, Ian Kennedy and Burnett will surely attested to), but as the Pirates already know, that doesn’t mean talented arms can’t thrive in Pennsylvania.
If you were to look past Hughes’ 5.19/1.46 ERA/WHIP and whopping .286 BAA (I know, it’s a lot to ask), what you’re left with is a guy who put up a strong 7.48 K/9 to 2.59 K/9 in 2013, a career-high first strike rate of 71.7 percent, and a pitcher whose most critical vice is that he couldn’t keep the ball in the park (1.48 HR/9 in 2013, 1.64 in 2012).
Sound familiar? That’s because prior to Burnett getting out of the Bronx, his biggest issue was — yep — preventing home runs.
Well, you know the rest of the story by now: the righty went over to Pittsburgh, cut his career-high 1.47 HR/9 rate from his final season with the Yankees to 0.80 with the Bucs in 2012, and continued that redemption tour in 2013 with a 0.52 HR/9 rate. There’s little to suggest that Hughes cannot have similar success: you’d only have to see his 6.32/3.88 home/away ERA split and his 1.95/0.94 home/away HR/9 split in 2013 for proof.
Small sample size? Nah — over the course of his 780.2 inning career with the Yankees, Hughes owns a 1.69 HR/9 at home and 0.86 away from it.
This is simply a different pitcher when he’s not doing work at the homer haven known as Yankee Stadium, but what make him an even better fit with the Pirates is that PNC park happens to be one of the least homer-prone parks in the bigs. With a HR park factor of 0.679 for 2013, only Marlins Park was better at suppressing power this year, something that should give Hughes the perfect environment in which to thrive.
Best of all, because he’s been so inconsistent with the Yankees, the Bucs should be able to get him on a team-friendly deal in his prime — perhaps three years at $25 million total? There are some health risks there, but the upside is such that he’d probably end up giving Pittsburgh significant value in a deal if they can get him for under $10 million per year, leaving money for the team to fill other needs.
The numbers might not say it, but Hughes is a bounce-back project waiting to happen; and as the baseball world has seen, there are few places better than the home of the Pirates for ex-Yankees to do it.