-- Daryl S., Grants Pass, Ore.
Slotting Hughes in the bullpen isn't going to help him get back to that 18-win form from 2010, and the Yankees still see him taking the ball every fifth day at the big league level. Hughes has proven that he can succeed out of the bullpen, but the organization has never really looked at him in that way. There was an uptick in his velocity as a reliever last year, but that would be expected from pretty much any starter who enters that role.
The good news is that the Yankees don't need him to be a No. 3 starter this year. Right now, he's only being asked to pitch as a No. 5 starter. Hughes does acknowledge that this could be his make-or-break year, telling the New York Daily News in November, "I'm at a point where the patience is running out." He'll be 26 in June, and New York isn't in a position to hand him anything -- not with A.J. Burnett and Freddy Garcia also competing for the fifth-starter's job.
The flexibility Hughes offers, having already made 49 appearances as a big league reliever, could wind up working against him in camp. It'd be easier to tell Hughes to pitch out of the bullpen than Burnett or Garcia. But that's a long way off, and spring injuries do seem to have a way of helping figure out problems -- like the tricky issue of how manager Joe Girardi is going to fit seven starters into five slots.
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It's possible the Yankees could entertain shopping Hughes for a bat, as he seems more enticing to teams than Burnett or Garcia, but that'd be a case of the Bombers selling with Hughes' value at a low point. The best thing Hughes can do is come in ready to fight this spring, and all indications are that Hughes has been working out hard this winter. Health will play a huge role in how his 2012 season plays out, especially after he experienced shoulder and back injuries last season.
Do you think that the Yankees will give Jorge Vazquez a good chance at the designated-hitter spot in Spring Training?
-- Rudy K., Galloway, N.J.
As of right now, Vazquez should get his at-bats, but the roster situation still can change over the next few weeks. Vazquez could be a really fun case to watch. He has obviously proven that he can hit for power -- there was a bomb he crushed against the Phillies last spring that cleared the batters eye at George M. Steinbrenner Field -- and he was the talk of camp for a while. They're still curious about him; as one Yankees person put it recently, "Until he proves he doesn't hit, he can hit."
On the flip side, Vazquez, who turns 30 next month, isn't thought to be a strong defensive option at the corners, strikes out a ton (314 in 1,096 plate appearances as a Yankees farmhand) and rarely walks. He may turn out to be a one-dimensional player, but when you need a power-hitting DH, that might not be so bad. Andruw Jones will be in that DH mix, and if the Bombers wind up bringing Eric Chavez back, he'd surely get some consideration as well.
What is the story with Luis Ayala? He was a solid middle reliever for the Yankees last season. Has no other team expressed interest in signing him?
-- Michael B., Southwick, Mass.
Indeed he was, and to some extent, it seems the Yankees felt they got lucky when Ayala emerged as an effective part of their bullpen. The Angels and Orioles are said to have offered Ayala contracts, and the Yankees and Astros have also expressed some interest. Ayala came in on just a Minor League contract last year, and as with Bartolo Colon, New York may not be willing to pay a significant amount to roll the dice again. Maybe Manny Delcarmen, signed to a Minor League deal with a Spring Training invitation this week, will turn out to be this year's Ayala.
When will the Yankees announce their non-roster invitees? Why do they take so much longer than the other teams? Is there a big advantage keeping this such a big secret?
-- Don K., Galloway, N.J.
No, there's no strategy to it, really. It's more out of convenience -- the Yankees just prefer to announce all of their non-roster invitees in one big batch. We've already seen some of the names leak out, like Delcarmen, Cole Garner, Adam Miller, Gustavo Molina, Hideki Okajima and DeWayne Wise. There will be more to follow, probably within the next week.
After trading away our top hitting prospect in Jesus Montero, are there any other really good hitting prospects in the Minors?
-- Dan S., Scottsdale, Ariz.
Let's not sugarcoat it; Montero may turn out to be a very special bat, and certainly he's not the kind of talent that you can count on replacing so quickly. But the Yankees do have a few promising hitters on the horizon; to name a few, catcher Gary Sanchez (.256 average, 17 homers, 52 RBIs in 82 games at Class A Charleston last year), outfielder Mason Williams (.349 average, three homers, 31 RBIs in 68 games at Class A Staten Island) and infielder Dante Bichette Jr. (.342 average, three homers, 47 RBIs with the Gulf Coast Yankees) all promise to be worth watching in the years to come.
Now that we know that neither Montero nor Jorge Posada will be among the catchers on the Opening Day roster, who will be?
-- Steve M., Albuquerque, N.M.
Russell Martin will be back for his second season as the starting catcher, and it seems safe to assume that Francisco Cervelli and Austin Romine will compete for the backup catching job. The Yankees had talked about carrying three catchers, but that was more to accommodate Montero. Cervelli and Romine could both fit into the role of a defensive-minded backstop who would play once or twice a week.
What is the recent history with the Yankees and salary arbitration? Who were the last Yankees to take their contracts to arbitration?
-- Rich P., Portland, Ore.
The Yankees haven't gone to arbitration since February 2008, when they won their case against pitcher Chien-Ming Wang. Wang had asked for $4.6 million and was instead awarded $4 million, still a healthy raise from his previous salary of $489,500. It was a good deal at the time; one wonders how it would have turned out if not for that ill-fated day on the bases in Houston.