Recent failures of Hughes, Kennedy and Chamberlain a harsh reminder of once-heralded trio
Once upon a time, Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain represented the future of the Yankees, a trio of touted pitching prospects slated to form the foundation of the team’s rotation for years to come. Five years later, in one period slightly longer than 24 hours, all three illustrated why their major league careers are now on the fringes.
On Wednesday night in Toronto, with the Yankees’ slim playoff hopes fading, Hughes got the hook after just three innings from manager Joe Girardi, the 12th time this year he’s gone less than five innings, not including one removal due to a rain delay. On Thursday afternoon in Pittsburgh, Kennedy completed his own less-than-five-and-fly routine for the Padres, as he was battered by the Pirates before being chased in the fourth inning. Back in Toronto on Thursday night, Chamberlain applied what may stand as the coup de gràce to the Yankees’ season when he failed to retire any of the three hitters he faced and instead served up a three-run homer to Adam Lind.
A trio of former first-round picks, Hughes, Chamberlain and Kennedy all debuted in 2007 and were written into the Yankees’ plans for 2008 and beyond. All have enjoyed intermittent success since, but injuries and erratic performances have limited their impact and dulled their promise. They’re no longer special, just a trio of struggling pitchers playing out the string and hoping to recover their lost potential next year.
The first to be drafted (2004, 23rd pick) and to reach the majors was Hughes, who ranked 39th on Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list in 2006 and shot up to fourth in 2007. Debuting on April 26 of that year, he carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning in his second start five days later, but left due to a pulled hamstring that sent him to the disabled list for half a season. A stress fracture in his rib limited him to eight starts in 2008, and it took a stint in the bullpen in 2009 for him to stick in the majors; he worked his way to a setup role in front of Mariano Rivera and helped the Yankees win that year’s World Series.
Hughes burst from the gate with a 1.38 ERA through his first six starts in 2010, and wound up having a big year from a won-loss standpoint (18-8), but his ERA after that hot start was 4.98, and he finished at 4.19. Shoulder weakness limited him to 14 starts and a 5.79 ERA in 2011, but he rebounded to set career highs in starts (32) and innings (191 1/3) in 2012, finishing with a 4.23 ERA despite allowing 1.6 homers per nine. Alas, while his peripherals — including a similarly gaudy 1.5 homers per nine — haven’t changed much this year, his ERA is up to 5.07, and he’s averaged just 5.1 innings per start. His 13 starts of less than five innings in one season are tied for second among pitchers in the post-1992 expansion era, one short of the Tigers’ Sean Bergman in 1995.
With the Yankees barely clinging to hopes for a playoff spot, Girardi has kept Hughes on a particularly short leash. He last completed five innings on Aug. 20 against the Blue Jays; essentially, he’s become part of a tandem arrangement with lefty David Huff, who has thrown 15 2/3 innings of relief in Hughes’ four starts since then while allowing just two runs, compared to Hughes’ six runs in 12 1/3 innings in those same games. Girardi used Huff to start in Hughes’ place on Sept. 7, but he was tagged for nine runs in 3 1/3 innings against the Red Sox.
The 27-year-old Hughes is heading into free agency this winter, and where once he might have been in line for a moderately lucrative multi-year deal somewhere between those of Jeremy Guthrie (three years, $25 million) and Edwin Jackson (four years, $52 million) from last winter, he’s more likely to wind up trying to rebuild his value via a one- or two-year deal.
The same goes for Chamberlain, a 2006 supplemental first-round pick who burst onto the major league scene in a bullpen role in late 2007 and dazzled, putting up a 0.38 ERA and striking out 12.8 per nine in 24 innings down the stretch before succumbing to a swarm of midges in the Division Series. Insects aside, his performance that year vaulted him to third on BA’s prospect list the following spring, when the Yankees, mindful of his workload, kept the 22-year-old in his setup role until June before easing him into the rotation. Alas, their efforts to protect their prized young arm proved futile when Chamberlain turned up with rotator cuff tendonitis late in the year; he wound up making just 12 starts among his 42 appearances and 100 1/3 innings en route to a 2.60 ERA.
Debate surrounding his role continued to rage, but after a mediocre season for the 2009 Yanks (4.75 ERA and 7.6 strikeouts per nine in 157 1/3 innings, not to mention 13 starts of less than five innings himself), the Yankees cast him back into the bullpen and resisted future calls to reconsider his course. Initially entrusted with setup duty, his level of responsibility has diminished with his declining health; he underwent Tommy John surgery in June 2011 and dislocated his ankle while rehabbing — if jumping on a trampoline with one’s child can be considered rehabbing — the following spring. After throwing 71 2/3 innings in 2010, he managed just 49 1/3 over the next two years, and thanks to the combination of a month lost to an oblique strain and his increasing marginalization via a 4.97 ERA, he’s at 41 2/3 this year, fewer than five other New York relievers including the much less heralded Adam Warren, Shawn Kelley and Preston Claiborne.
Since June 3, his second game back from the DL, Chamberlain has made just three appearances where the average Leverage Index (the amount of pressure based upon score margin, base/out situation and inning) is above 1.0, where it is at first pitch. By comparison, Kelley (20) and Claiborne (eight) have been called upon far more often under such circumstances. Thursday’s faceplant came with the Yankees down two in the top of the seventh, meaning it wasn’t even a high-leverage situation (0.57 aLI), but amid such continued underperformance, Chamberlain hasn’t done enough to win back Girardi’s trust, and now he may never.
As for Kennedy, chosen 21st by the Yankees in 2006 out of the University of Southern California, he debuted in September the following year, putting up a 1.89 ERA in three starts. He joined Hughes in the rotation straight out of the gate in 2008, but was rocked for a 7.41 ERA through eight starts and one relief appearance, then sent to the minors. When he declared himself “not too upset” about a two-inning, five run start upon returning in August — in place of the injured Chamberlain, ironically — the die was cast; he would make just one more appearance for the Yankees. Though an aneurysm that cost him nearly all of 2009 was more to blame, those words of nonchalance played a role in his inclusion in the three-way trade that sent Austin Jackson to Detroit and brought Curtis Granderson to the Bronx in December of that year.
Kennedy finally established a foothold in the majors with the Diamondbacks in 2010, making 32 starts with a 3.80 ERA, and broke out the following year while helping Arizona to the NL West flag; his 21-4, 2.88 ERA showing netted him fourth place in the Cy Young voting. He slipped to a 4.02 ERA last year, but his three-year average of 208 innings with a 3.55 ERA (115 ERA+) and 8.0 strikeouts per nine is still far beyond anything either Hughes or Chamberlain ever sustained.
Though he’s making just $4.265 million this year, with two more years of club control, Kennedy’s declining fortunes and the Diamondbacks’ coming wave of pitching prospects put him on the spot. His sluggish performance and a 10-game suspension at the center of a beanbrawl with the Dodgers didn’t help. After putting up a 5.23 ERA through his first 21 starts, he was dealt to the Padres — whose general manager, Josh Byrnes, acquired him for the Diamondbacks in 2009 — at the July 31 deadline in a deal that netted only lefty specialist Joe Thatcher, Double-A righty reliever Matt Stites and a compensation pick, a return meager enough for me to declare the Diamondbacks deadline losers in this space. Working in a much more pitcher-friendly park, he has nonetheless struggled for San Diego; the 76 ERA+ on his 4.65 ERA is right in line with his 74 ERA+ for Arizona, and he’s failed to last five innings in three starts out of nine.
Even with his underperformance, Kennedy is likely to remain a Padre given the team’s lack of rotation depth and his arbitration status. In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Byrnes pursues at least one of his former peers as a free agent this winter, because Petco Park is a place where a pitcher bedeviled by the longball elsewhere can succed. That description fits all three; consider their numbers since the beginning of 2010, particularly relative to the major league average of 0.97 homers per nine:
All three have been at least 14 percent worse than average in home run rate during the period, with Hughes a whopping 47 percent worse. The new Yankee Stadium has been a big part of that for Hughes and Chamberlain, but an inability to adjust in the face of declining results and diminishing stuff — particularly given the extreme flyball orientation of Hughes and Kennedy — has as well.
That goes particularly for Hughes, whose 0.70 groundball-to-flyball ratio is tied with Bruce Chen for the lowest in the majors in that 2010-2013 span among pitchers with at least 500 innings. That’s a horrible match for the homer haven that is the new(ish) ballpark in the Bronx. In that span, Hughes has yielded twice as many homers per nine at home (1.86) as on the road (0.93) and has an ERA nearly a run higher (5.06 to 4.11), with a FIP spread that’s slightly wider (5.14 to 3.89). Why couldn’t the Yankees help him come up with a sinker or another pitch to generate groundballs in that context? An organization like the Cardinals — where former pitching coach Dave Duncan saved many a career — certainly would have.
It’s clear that neither Hughes nor Chamberlain have a future in the Bronx. As it did for Kennedy, perhaps a change of scenery is what they need to write more positive chapters in their major league careers.