By Sweeny Murti
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We are certainly moving closer to Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain being ex-Yankees. Both pitchers are free agents and there is little chance that either on re-signs. In fact, both pitchers have received healthy interest on the market, both should have multiyear offers to choose from and there is a chance both will thrive in a new environment.
So how do we rate the Hughes and Chamberlain “era” in New York? Most fans tell me they were “busts.” I will tell you — and so will most major-league executives — that it would be better to say “disappointing.” Both pitchers did achieve a certain level of success that would keep them from being labeled as busts.
Let’s start with Hughes, the 23rd-overall pick in the 2004 MLB Draft. He excelled as a reliever for a short time and ended up winning 50 of his 132 starts over seven years. He helped the Yankees win a World Series and made an All-Star team. He cost the Yankees just over $14 million in salaries from 2007-2013.
“I would be ecstatic if a guy I picked 23rd overall out of high school gave me what Hughes gave the Yankees,” a former GM told me. “Look at the other pitchers taken in the first round and look at all the guys who didn’t make it.”
Hughes was the 15th pitcher taken in the first round in 2004, and only Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver (both college pitchers) have had better careers. Two of the top eight picks — No. 1 overall Matt Bush and No. 8 overall Wade Townsend — never made it to the major leagues at all. Homer Bailey (seventh overall) and Glen Perkins (22nd overall) have had careers comparable to Hughes. Perkins, like Hughes, has made one All-Star team, although Perkins made it this past season only after being converted to a closer.
“Also look at other players taken with the 23rd pick in previous years,” the former GM told me. “It can be inexact in the top five picks, and it’s worse after that, even in the first round.”
Some gems have been taken 23rd overall, such as Mo Vaughn, Jason Kendall and Jacoby Ellsbury. But so have Brandon Wood, Bubba Crosby and even the “moneyball” poster boy for draft science — Billy Beane (23rd overall by the Mets in 1980).
After his 16-win season in 2012, Hughes was on his way to a big payday, somewhere in the Edwin Jackson (four years/$13 million per year) and Anibal Sanchez (five years/$16 million per year) neighborhoods, according to many executives I spoke to last offseason But the season Hughes endured in 2013 (4-14, 5.19 ERA) cost him significantly, even to the point where the Yankees could not afford to even make him a qualifying offer for fear that he would accept the one-year, $14.1 million deal.
Hughes will still get a multiyear deal, and will likely be more successful in a less stressful environment than New York, and in a park that doesn’t punish fly-ball pitchers as severely.
And now Chamberlain, the 41st-overall pick in the 2006 draft. A rock-star debut in late 2007 (one earned run in 24 innings) was followed by a decent official rookie season in 2008 (2.60 ERA in 42 games, including 12 starts). He made 31 starts in 2009, then made a team-high 73 appearances in 2010 after being converted back to a reliever full-time. Chamberlain ended up making 260 appearances over seven seasons, the last six of which never lived up to the promise of that debut. He cost the Yankees a little over $6 million in salaries from 2007-2013.
“There are no guarantees that far down,” a major-league scouting director told me about the 41st pick.
“They probably screwed him up by moving him around (from starter to reliever),” another former GM told me. “It’s harder to evaluate him because of his injuries, but he still gave them plenty of value for a pick that low.”
I still recall the Yankees telling me that they would have considered Preston Mattingly with that pick if he was still on the board. Even the Red Sox were interested in Mattingly at No. 40, where they chose college pitcher Kris Johnson. The son of former Yankees great Don Mattingly was taken by the Dodgers (coincidentally) at pick 31. He never made it past Class A. David Huff, the journeyman lefty who pitched with the Yankees this past season, was taken by Cleveland two picks ahead of Chamberlain. There were six pitchers taken in that first round who never made it to the majors at all.
Again looking at the history of the 41st-overall pick, only three pitchers in the history of the draft taken in that exact slot have appeared in more major-league games than Chamberlain (Trever Miller, Lance McCullers and Dan Plesac).
Chamberlain’s contract value is obviously lessened because of his relief role. Why do you think he again said last spring that he would want to start or close? But last week I was told that more than a dozen teams had already shown interest in his services. And I know of at least one contending team that thought about pursuing him at the trade deadline this past July because he was still throwing in the mid 90’s consistently.
The biggest problem with the expectations for Hughes and Chamberlain were the ones we all (media and fans alike) helped create. I remember that we in the media couldn’t get Jason Giambi’s quote into print fast enough that called Hughes “a young Rocket” early one spring training. And how many “Joba Rules” T-shirts are tucked away in dresser drawers?
The inexact — and, at times, flawed — nature of rating prospects doesn’t help either. The 2006 Baseball America Top 100 prospects listed Hughes (39) ahead of Andrew McCutcheon (50), Jered Weaver (57), Adam Jones (64), Cole Hamels (68), Gio Gonzalez (73), Dustin Pedroia (77) and Matt Kemp (96) The same list had Lastings Milledge (9) ahead of Prince Fielder (11).
The 2008 Baseball America Top 100 list has Chamberlain (ranked third after his meteoric rise in 2007) ahead of Clayton Kershaw (7), David Price (10) and Max Scherzer (66). The same list had Cameron Maybin (6) and Fernando Martinez (20) ahead of Carlos Gonzalez (22), while Reid Brignac (39) was ahead of Joey Votto (44) and Chris Davis (65).
Oops. This is why scouting, drafting and developing is a constant struggle.
Hughes has had some problems with durability and Chamberlain has had injuries both normal– Tommy John surgery — and not so normal (the trampoline incident). Both had success and failure in starting and relief roles with long spells of mediocrity in between. Both have had extremely frustrating stretches in their major-league careers.
Yes, we all helped create the hype and bought into it. We expected more based on a lot of early promise. That makes them disappointing, but far from busts.
And what’s more, both are young enough to still enjoy a good deal of success in the major leagues. At which point we can all go back to blaming the Yankees again.
Follow Sweeny Murti on Twitter @YankeesWFAN.
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