Hughes, Kennedy seeking second shot
One year after struggling in Majors, hurlers vying for redemption
TAMPA, Fla. -- Just as they did last year, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy line up with the rest of the Yankees' starting pitchers, going through the same spring paces and cheering on the club's rotation during Grapefruit League play.
They are on the outside looking in. One season after being promised spots in the starting five, Hughes and Kennedy are assured of nothing, left to hope for another opportunity to succeed at the big league level.
"I guess the lesson learned," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said, "is that we're deeper. Somebody else can take it from you if they want. We have more choices, and that's a better thing."
That urgency was not present last season, when the Yankees pinned a large portion of their hopes on the idea that both Hughes and Kennedy would step up as major contributors in the starting rotation.
The idea was not without merit. Both were highly touted first-round picks who shot through the Yankees' farm system, making it to New York and finding success at the highest level during the 2007 season.
Few could have anticipated the struggles that would follow. Their campaigns marred by injuries and inconsistency, Hughes and Kennedy could not last as members of the Yankees' starting five, finishing the season a combined 0-8 with a 7.45 ERA in 17 starts.
"I came in and I had a penciled-in spot," Kennedy said. "It was almost my spot to lose. Now, I feel like I have to re-prove myself again as a competitor. I want to say, 'Listen, I want to be part of this team again.'"
Yankees manager Joe Girardi said the hurlers' seasons were pockmarked with "growing pains," but there was also anguish of the physical variety -- each spent time on the disabled list, Hughes with a fractured right rib and Kennedy with a right lat muscle strain.
"It makes you realize how hard it is to stay here," Girardi said. "You've got to work. Everyone wants to take your job. You have to find ways to get better because people are going to make adjustments to you."
Because of the disappointing showing, the Yankees prioritized starting pitching over the winter, landing the top free agents in CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett for a combined $243.5 million.
Both pitchers say they understood, but if any member of the rotation falters, Hughes and Kennedy believe the chance could be theirs.
"Obviously, if the five starters we have stay healthy and make every one of their starts and we win 110 games, great," Hughes said. "That's the goal. But if that doesn't happen and I'm called upon, I'll be ready to go."
Hughes opened 2008 as the youngest pitcher in the Major Leagues, and he watched his ERA bloat to 9.00 through six starts. He walked off the mound on April 29 and would not pitch again in the big leagues until September.
Helping Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre during its postseason drive, Hughes was able to finish his year on a high note, hurling eight innings of two-run ball on Sept. 24 at Toronto. He wrapped up in the Arizona Fall League, making seven starts for Peoria and going 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA.
|"I knew if I wanted to make any part of the rotation or have a spot, I'd have to work really hard and come to Spring Training ready. All I can do is work hard and show them that I want this, that I want to have the chance again."|
|-- Ian Kennedy|
Hoping to avoid a third consecutive year of injuries, Hughes spent four days a week training at the Athletes' Performance Institute in Los Angeles. Concentrating on upper body strength, Hughes added eight pounds to inch up to 240, where he was in 2006 -- his last full healthy season.
"I know what I'm capable of doing," Hughes said, "but I still have to go out and show that I can do it on the highest level."
Kennedy's perceived lack of aggressiveness frustrated Girardi and pitching coach Dave Eiland, giving the impression that he did not trust his stuff. He was 0-4 with an 8.17 ERA in 10 appearances (nine starts) over three stints with New York, allowing opponents to bat .309 against him.
His last big league start came on Aug. 8, when Kennedy was dispatched to Anaheim after Joba Chamberlain was forced to the disabled list. Kennedy was shelled, allowing five runs in two-plus innings, and raised eyebrows when he told reporters that he was "just not real upset about it."
Kennedy said a turning point came in the Puerto Rican Winter League, where he spun a league-leading 1.56 ERA in six starts for Mayaguez. While there, Kennedy tweaked his curveball and recaptured some of his chutzpah.
"I feel like I grew as a pitcher, just as far as maturity and making in-game adjustments rather than postgame or post-inning," Kennedy said. "This offseason, knowing that every other day someone signed, it still didn't change my mentality.
"I knew if I wanted to make any part of the rotation or have a spot, I'd have to work really hard and come to Spring Training ready. All I can do is work hard and show them that I want this, that I want to have the chance again."
That's not to say there aren't still moments of rocky road. Kennedy allowed five runs in 2 2/3 innings Tuesday against Toronto, and he came away "extremely frustrated," Girardi said.
"From an inside point of view, he wants to have his stuff right," Girardi said. "But from us looking at him, we want him to continue to get better and make a few adjustments."
Despite their highs and lows to this point, Hughes is still only 22 and Kennedy is 24. That youth influenced Cashman to resist trade offers on both hurlers this past winter. Their promise leads the Yankees to believe there will still be a future for both pitchers in their uniform, whenever it comes.
"I think they probably feel that they have time to get their stuff in order," Girardi said. "Maybe it's not as much of a rush as it was. For those guys, they know who's in front of them and what's in front of them. They know it's just important to be ready to be called upon and have their stuff ready."
It could well be that the Yankees need to make a call at some point during the year. But Cashman will not commit to saying Hughes or Kennedy would necessarily be the next arm up.
"We always tell our players to make sure when we call Scranton that you're the guy they recommend," Cashman said. "Those names can change throughout the year, and they typically do. Whoever is pitching the best is next in line."
Their travels so closely linked, Hughes and Kennedy have forged a friendship. Their lockers reside within distance of a soft conversation, and the pair often plays catch to warm up together. Sometimes, they can't help but laugh about their link in waiting for that second chance.
"Last year, we were in the same situation, and now we're kind of in the same situation," Kennedy said. "I think it's good that we're friends and we can talk about it. It makes it a friendly competition. It's kind of like we're together no matter what, whether we like it or not."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.