Phil Hughes, once and future anchor of the Yankee rotation

Phil Hughes. (mlb.com)
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It is easy to forget just how big a deal it is for the New York Yankees to have Phil Hughes as a mainstay in their rotation.

Hughes, after all, started just 14 games last year, posting an unsightly 5.79 E.R.A. He didn't come into spring training in good shape last year, by his own admission, and his velocity stayed below his established norms for the entire season. The Yankees certainly didn't believe they could count on him, and on a team with seven starting pitchers competing for five spots, plus a large crop just behind those seven in the minors, Hughes looked like trade-bait.

But there is far more to Hughes than just his 2011 problems, as his five strong innings in Wednesday's spring training game against Tampa Bay indicated. In Hughes, the Yankees have a young rotation anchor to pair with Michael Pineda behind CC Sabathia.

Consider that as recently as 2010, Hughes posted an E.R.A. of 4.19 at age 23, winning 18 games in the process and making the American League All-Star team. (A similar season from Pineda at age 22 meant New York needed to give up megaprospect Jesus Montero to acquire him.)

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The season before that, Hughes had been a dominant reliever. Before injury struggles in 2008, he'd been an effective starter for the Yankees in 2007, a year he began as the number four prospect in all of baseball, as per Baseball America.

A first-round pick, Hughes has always had the talent to succeed; arguably, he was rushed through New York's system, though his dominance and varied repertoire makes that far less of a crime than, say, the way the Mets treated Mike Pelfrey.

Now 25, with velocity already better than it was all of last year, Hughes has upside beyond just keeping a rotation spot warm while Pettitte rounds into shape. And the success he had on Wednesday with his changeup, previously his fourth or fifth pitch, is more encouraging still. Hughes struck out three over five innings, and two of the three strikeout pitches were changeups.

So it is easy to understand why New York might trade Freddy Garcia to free up room among the starters. And Hughes, Pineda and Ivan Nova all have options left to the minor leagues, so one of them probably ought to head to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to get regular work and serve as first man up if someone in the rotation gets injured. Hint: it should be Nova, the least talented of the trio.

Hughes, with his talent and track record, has a far better chance of working his way into discussions of who should pitch in the postseason rotation behind Sabathia than discussions about who needs to go.

Assuming Hughes stays healthy and maintains his current form, the Yankees will be able to start to budget for the 2014 free-agent market. He will finally have become the building block the Yankees have spent the past few years hoping he'd be.