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Panic! In the Bronx

The Yankees, no doubt in a panic after losing to the Devil Rays 6-4 last night, have finally pulled the trigger on a move everyone knew was coming. Twenty-year-old pitching phenomenon Philip Hughes (long the only untouchable Yankee minor league prospect) is being called to the majors to fill in the holes in the rotation until Mike Mussina is able to come back. As MSNBC ominously noted, Hughes is the youngest pitcher to start for the Yankees since Jose Rijo in 1984.

As a Reds fan, I remember Jose Rijo quite well. He was the ace of our 1990 World Series championship team that murdered the Bash Brothers Oakland Athletics (he was also MVP of the series). Immensely talented (and an All Star in 1994), Rijo spent his entire career troubled by arm problems, especially in his elbow. By 1995, Rijo was out of the league (save a brief comeback in 2001 02, in which he played well at age 37 and won the Tony Conigliaro Award for courage).

Pitchers seem to be a mixed bag. Some more knowledgeable in baseball than myself feel the way to develop a pitcher is to move him up, slowly, through the minor leagues. Some folks feel that there’s only a certain level you can get a guy to in the minors before you have to bring him into the majors, because, to steal a phrase, there are only so many bullets in the gun, and that every pitch thrown in the minors is a pitch that could’ve been used in the majors. I fall somewhere in the middle; pitchers do have a limited lifespan but the easiest way to kill a youngster’s arm is to rush him into the major leagues (Rijo, Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, possibly Francisco Liriano).

I’m not going so far as to say this is a mistake by Brian Cashman and the rest of the Yankees higher-ups, but they are panicking. That’s obvious. I mean, this guy is a first round draft pick, and he’s playing incredibly well in Scranton. So far the only thing he’s got in common with Jose Rijo is potential and right handedness, but if they don’t watch this guy carefully, limit his pitch count, and stick to a schedule with him, they’re going to break him down.

The last thing the Yankees need is another young, injury-prone pitcher to go with their old injury-prone pitchers, and hurlers these days seem to be a lot more fragile than they were only 10 years ago.
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As the resident Yankees fan, I can say there's some mild concern going on, but I wouldn't flat-out call it panicking; after all, it's only April. The problem is that there's not a lot of good pitching available right now, so sometimes you're forced to make some choices that you'd rather not have to make. I'd rather see them take a chance on Hughes than bow to the massive ego that is Roger Clemens and pay far too much money for an aging player whose arm may or may not still have some life, but whose lower body is ready to fall apart at any given time.

As to the status of young arms these days, the fault lies all the way back to overzealous parents and coaches from T-ball all the way through high school. Junior manages to throw a ball in a straight line and Mommy, Daddy and Coach are all ready to get that boy a MLB contract. Little League may finally be making an attempt to control the damage potential, but that doesn't stop some parents and coaches from teaching kids to throw in a way their developing bodies aren't able to handle and pushing the rules as far as they can in order to get wins. By the time Junior gets to college, he may already have to deal with Tommy John surgery, possibly even multiple surgeries.

The problem is, easing a player into the majors doesn't seem to change matters, either. Look at King Felix; Seattle did just about everything except carry him around in a padded case between games and he still ended up on the DL. In Liriano's case, I think the problem was moving him from bullpen to starter without allowing time for his arm to adjust to the transition. God only knows what did in Wood and Prior (except perhaps being Cubs players).

There has to be a happy medium somewhere between treating a pitcher's arm like it's glass and making him pitch until his arm falls off, but if the damage has been done long before the pitcher's in the bigs, I don't know if there's anything MLB teams can do to change things. Parents and coaches need to be better educated on exactly what damage they're doing to their children's bodies in a misguided attempt to bring them success. Perhaps if MLB and Little League worked together to encourage proper training techniques, there'd be fewer problems for these kids later on if they do want a career in baseball.

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