By Ernie Palladino
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The Phil Hughes situation may well prove how nice it is to have some experienced depth in the rotation.

The Yanks are going to take things slow with the hard-throwing right-hander, who claims to be pain-free now despite a bulging disk in his upper back. Joe Girardi isn’t about to rush him back into spring training games, at least not yet. But if he doesn’t get four preseason starts to work himself up to 75 pitches, he’s not going to be there for the start of the regular season.

This is not exactly tragic news, though it won’t be an auspicious start for a pitcher looking to get to the next level of his game. He did well last year at 16-13, 4.19 in 32 starts, just below his career-best 18-8, 4.19 of 2010. What he needs is more consistency, and you only get that by pitching.

But that’s on a personal level. In a team-wide perspective, the Yanks can survive his absence for a start or two as he builds his stamina. Ivan Nova and David Phelps are vying for the fifth spot, so either one of them can step in. With six off-days scattered through the first two months of the season, there really won’t be a great call for a regular fifth starter.

It could also give a guy like Nova a jump on achieving some of the consistency he lacked last year. A lot of his 12-8 record of last season came as a result of outstanding run support, something he can’t rely on in a year where Derek Jeter’s ankle, Alex Rodriguez’ hip and PED suspicions, and Curtis Granderson’s forearm could cut into the offensive production.

Still, he won his first three starts right out of the gate and pitched well enough to be 9-2 after going 7 2/3 innings in a 4-1 win over the Nationals June 17. He only won three times in 10 starts after that, however, Phelps is more of a reliever, but he did start 11 games in a 4-4 rookie season.

Hughes came on after going 1-4 in his first five starts. Two truly bad outings low lighted that stretch; a six-run shelling over 3 1/3 innings to the Angels in his second start and a 2 2/3-inning, four-run appearance against the Rangers in his fourth start. That one proved his shortest outing of the season.

He went 8-2 between May and the end of July, though, and he had a complete-game win against the Tigers in there.

They all know what the 26-year-old is capable of, and they expect even better things to follow. And that’s why Girardi isn’t rushing him back. If he misses a start, or even two at the beginning of the regular season, no big deal.

Still, Hughes wants back in as quickly as possible.

“Every day is worrisome when I’m not throwing,” Hughes said. “It’s a double-edged sword. I don’t want to push this thing and have it become a recurring issue. I want to make sure it’s over and done with, but at the same time, every day is a day lost.”

He won’t be throwing in a game for at least two weeks, which certainly puts his first real start April 5 in Detroit in doubt. But Girardi can’t worry about that, either. He’ll just have to be content that Hughes is doing everything possible to get ready, which for now involved aquatic workouts that minimize the strain on his back.

It’s not an ideal situation. But it’s not the end of the world, either.

What’s the rush, right? Sound off on the Yankees’ pitching situation in the comments…

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