SARASOTA, Fla. - In a decision that surprised no one, Yankees manager Joe Girardi announced Thursday morning that Phil Hughes had won the role of fifth starter, beating out Joba Chamberlain and three other nominal candidates.
Hughes didn't have the best spring among the five pitchers, but he was much better than Chamberlain, who will slide into the key bullpen role he might be best suited for anyway.
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The dominoes started falling early Thursday morning when Girardi called Chad Gaudin into his office to tell him the Yankees were releasing him. A little later, he told Hughes and Chamberlain of the decision.
Girardi said Hughes' development of a changeup this spring was a big factor. The righthander won't turn 24 until June 24, and the Yankees think he can be a solid starter for years to come. He started seven games last year before excelling in the bullpen.
Chamberlain struggled in the rotation while dealing with the Joba Rules before joining Hughes in the postseason pen.
"It was a tough decision because these guys threw the ball well," Girardi said. "Obviously, you talk about every scenario possible and you try to cover yourself in every scenario that could come up during a game. When we walked out, Phil Hughes was our guy."
Hughes (0-2, 4.15 ERA this spring) will start on three days' rest Friday night against the Phillies; he'll throw a shorter outing than usual as the Yankees attempt to line him up for a possible start in the fifth game of the season (Girardi wouldn't commit to that; because of off days, he doesn't have to yet).
Said Hughes: "It's what I set out to do this spring was to win that job. I felt like I did everything that they asked me to do and they felt like I was the right guy for the spot. So I'm happy about it and I'm ready for the challenge.''
Chamberlain, who has a 16.20 ERA in major-league appearances this spring, will pitch an inning of relief Saturday, Girardi said. "You go with the flow," Chamberlain said as he left Steinbrenner Field in Tampa after a bullpen session. "That's what I've done."
Chamberlain started 31 games last season, but his best work as a major-leaguer has been as a reliever. He'll get a chance to recreate that excitement as Mariano Rivera's top setup man, even if Girardi wouldn't commit to that exact role for the 24-year-old.
Committing to Hughes as a starter was easier because of the improvement in his changeup. "To me, that made a big difference in who he is," Girardi said. "We told him, 'We want you to continue to use it. Continue to work on it.' "
Hughes will be under an innings limit, though not as severe or potentially controversial as the Joba Rules. The Yankees would like to keep Hughes around 170 innings; for most fifth starters, that can be easily accomplished by skipping a start here or there.
"That is the next thing we iron out," Girardi said. "There is somewhat of a limitation that we have to deal with again."
Said Hughes: "I asked briefly about an innings cap and they said it will be something they look at but don't foresee it being a huge issue like in years past."
With Erik Boland in Tampa