NEW YORK -- No matter how well Phil Hughes was pitching in their rotation, the Yankees knew they could not keep one of the winningest starters in the American League shackled in their bullpen for long. And so on Wednesday, they made the decision that they had been avoiding for the better part of a week.

The Yankees announced that Chien-Ming Wang will start Thursday afternoon's game against the Rangers, pushing CC Sabathia back to Friday and knocking Hughes to the bullpen.

"I kind of knew something had to give eventually," Hughes said. "With the way Wang's been pitching out of the bullpen, he looks like he's back to his normal stuff. That kind of leaves me as the odd man out."

But he's hardly out. Largely because Hughes struck out 21 batters and walked three over his final three starts -- posting a 3.50 ERA during that span -- the Yankees decided to keep him in the bullpen rather than option him to Triple-A.

They still see Hughes as a future cog in their rotation -- and they know that a bullpen assignment may potentially stunt his growth -- but the Yankees nonetheless felt the need to reward one of their most promising young starters.

"He's one of our best pitchers right now," general manager Brian Cashman said. "He's earned the right to stay for a period of time."

"I'd rather be in the 'pen [than Triple-A]," Hughes said. "I need the work, but at the same time, I want to help the team win."

And he will be given every opportunity to do precisely that. Just as they did with Joba Chamberlain in 2007, the Yankees will give Hughes the chance to pitch in late-inning situations, rather than pigeonhole him as a long reliever.

"I am not afraid to use him in important innings," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

Hughes' only previous relief experience came in the 2007 AL Division Series at Yankee Stadium, when he made two appearances -- and pitched 3 2/3 shutout innings in relief of Roger Clemens in Game 3.

Hughes' aptitude as a reliever, however, had little bearing on the decision to move him to the bullpen. By the time Wang completed three shutout innings of relief on Sunday in Cleveland, the Yankees had become convinced that their most successful starter of 2006 and '07 was back in top form.

After jetting out to an 8-2 start in 2008, Wang missed the remainder of the season due to surgery to repair a torn Lisfranc ligament in his right foot and a partially torn tendon in the same foot. Wang cracked the Opening Day rotation this season, but he hit the disabled list in April with weakness in the adductor muscles of both hips, after going 0-3 with a 34.50 ERA over his first three starts.

By the time Wang healed, Hughes had entrenched himself into the rotation, leaving the Yankees with nowhere to stow one of their most valuable pitchers.

"It was very hard," Wang said, "because you don't know when you're going to pitch."

The Yankees chose the bullpen as a temporary solution, keeping Wang there as long as common sense would allow. But any additional bullpen time would have been detrimental to Wang, who is still stretched out as a starter. In Thursday's game, he will be held to a generous limit of 75-80 pitches -- had the Yankees waited any longer, that number would have dropped dramatically.

Simply put, the Yankees couldn't justify keeping Wang in the bullpen any longer. From the start of the 2006 season through his DL stint last year, Wang led the Yankees with a 46-15 record, complementing that with a 3.74 ERA.

"He's someone that's got a huge history of nothing but success," Cashman said. "Now he's healthy and he looks right and he feels right, so it's, 'What are you waiting for?'"

"We had to feel that his stuff was back," Girardi said, explaining the delay. "And watching him these last two times has made us feel that his stuff is back."

A.J. Burnett fit the last puzzle piece into place on Tuesday evening, when he gave the Yankees seven innings in their series opener against the Rangers. Worried that they might need long reliever Alfredo Aceves in relief of Burnett, the Yankees were instead able to save Aceves for Thursday's game.

The ability to give Sabathia an extra day of rest was a bonus. And nothing tantalized the Yankees more than seeing Wang in their rotation once more.

"He's Chien-Ming Wang," Cashman said. "He's a perennial 18-game winner, and that's something that's just hard to find. He's done it year in and year out for us."

The front office's consternation instead revolved around what to do with Hughes. Bandying about the idea of optioning him to Triple-A and recalling a true reliever, the Yankees instead decided to reward a pitcher who hasn't lost a game since May 9. Hughes, a former first-round Draft pick not far removed from his status as one of the best prospects in baseball, was 3-2 with a 5.45 ERA on the season.

"To me, it seems like he went from being a kid to a man in a year," Girardi said. "He took on the responsibility of what he had to do. He got physically stronger, his stuff got better and he's grown up a lot in this last year. He's going to be an important part of this club, I believe, for a long time."

The Yankees will evaluate Hughes in the bullpen over the next two weeks, then decide whether they will keep him there longer or option him to Triple-A to maintain his endurance as a starter.

"The hardest part about this decision is that Phil Hughes has done nothing wrong to be taken out of the rotation," Girardi said. "He has thrown the ball pretty well for us, but we have a guy who has 46 wins over the last 2 1/2 years that's had a lot of success in our rotation, and we thought it was time to get him back in."