Tuesday April 24th, 2007

The most important man in the American League East has made himself known. It took just 18 games, 18 ridiculously messy New York Yankees games in which:

• Andy Pettitte, a guy with a checkered history when it comes to his left elbow, pitched twice out of the bullpen.

• Manager Joe Torre broke his spring vow to keep Mariano Rivera out of the eighth inning.

• And Chase Wright turned himself into an infamous trivia answer, if not an outright public hazard because of the carpet bombing of home run balls he engendered on Lansdowne Street.

It took 18 games for Yankees GM Brian Cashman, who tried to sell everyone on a rotation that included Carl (the Tin Man) Pavano and Kei Igawa (Japanese for "Jaret Wright"), to cry uncle.

Cashman is bringing up Phil Hughes, 20, the best pitching prospect in baseball, simply because it made no sense for the top pitcher in the organization to be getting outs for Scranton when nobody on the big league club could do so with even half his efficiency. Hughes, on Thursday, will become the team's ninth starting pitcher in the first 21 games of the season.

Cashman didn't want Hughes this early, perhaps not even at all this year -- not when the organization babied him last year while holding him to 146 total innings. Now he says Hughes may be around only for one start. Right. He is the best arm the Yankees have -- the one Torre wanted last August -- and they'd rather keep giving the ball to Igawa or counting on Pavano? Sure.

There's no way Hughes should be allowed to pitch 175 innings this year, but good luck getting him out of the rotation now. You try telling Torre that Hughes shouldn't pitch in September because his arm isn't ready for a sixth month and 30 more innings than he's ever thrown in a season.

Cashman simply couldn't afford to wait any longer. No matter the bill of goods he was selling this spring about the health of Pavano or the "craftiness" of Igawa -- a professional nibbler who has good reason, with his mediocre stuff in the AL, to be afraid to throw the ball over the plate -- the Yankees' fate this season always has rested with Cashman on two decisions:

1.) When does he bring Hughes to the big leagues?

2.) How badly does he bend team rules and his own "fiscal responsibility" kick (the same philosophy that wrongly cost him any shot at Daisuke Matsuzaka) to empty the piggy bank for Roger Clemens?

It's only been three weeks, but a pecking order has been established in the AL East. "The Red Sox are the best team in the division," one veteran GM says. That is so because the Red Sox's starting pitching has been as good as advertised, and the Yankees' rotation as poor as they could have feared. The Blue Jays? They haven't been the offensive force they expected, and need Frank Thomas to awaken and Troy Glaus to return next week before that status can be properly judged. The Orioles? With their improved bullpen and a big year from Erik Bedard, they might continue to surprise.

The Yankees have been every bit the offensive power that people expected. Through 18 games they led the AL in scoring (116 runs), had scored more runs to that point than all but 11 Yankee teams in history (nine of whom were pennant-winning teams) and featured one player, Alex Rodriguez, having the greatest April the game ever has seen. And even with all that offense, the Yankees somehow were a losing team: 8-10.

No team since the 1994 A's had managed to score as many as 116 runs in its first 18 games and still post a losing record.

Yes, the Yankees' rotation should get some stability with Chien-Ming Wang back on Tuesday and Mike Mussina perhaps next week from the epidemic of muscle strains and pulls around this club (perhaps traceable to Cashman's call to change the club's strength training program and instructors). New York is bound to pitch better sooner rather than later.

But even with those two veterans coming back Cashman needed Hughes now, his version of "Break Glass in Case of Emergency." It wasn't what he wanted, not this early, and it threatens to blow up the conservative growth schedule for Hughes. (See Prior, Mark and Wood, Kerry for how badly such accelerated workloads for pitchers can turn out.) But it's a move Cashman needed to make.

Next up: the call on Clemens. Cashman whiffed on Matsuzaka because he was rightly fixated on removing bloat from the payroll -- but his mistake was not realizing that Matsuzaka was the outlier, the exception who was worth the expenditure, especially at 26, to ride in the rotation with Hughes and Wang for years. Clemens, too, is an outlier. On the face of it he does not fit with Cashman's goal to run a leaner and younger organization, but Cashman must step outside his own chalk lines to swing the power in the division back to his side. It took 18 games for Hughes to get here. We'll know in another 30 games or so if Cashman steps up again.

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