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Is Phil Hughes the New Joba Chamberlain?

So here's something people tend to forget: Mariano Rivera began his Yankees career as a starter.

Rivera was almost exclusively a starter in the minor leagues — a good one, but not an amazing one. (The Yankees actually left Rivera unprotected in the 1992 expansion draft: Imagine Rivera wearing Florida Marlins teal.) His major league debut was May 23, 2005 1995, starting against the Anaheim Angels. He gave up five runs in three and one-third innings and threw 89 pitches, and the Yankees lost 10–0. He would start nine more games for the Yanks that year, finishing 5–3 with a 5.51 ERA. After that season, he never started a game again. And now he's a legend.

That's worth remembering as the Yankees deal with Phil Hughes.

The 23-year-old right-hander has been a godsend this season, securing a once-shaky bullpen with his eighth-inning bridge-to-Rivera dominance. Since June 20, Hughes HAS actually been more automatic than Rivera; he hasn't given up a run, tossing twenty scoreless innings. One can make the argument that Hughes's ascendance has been one of the major reasons the Yankees are in first place right now.

The funny thing is, the Yankees consider this all an accident. Hughes has always been slated to start, but during that short stretch that the team had all five starters healthy, they needed to keep him active and working. Injuries and ineffectiveness had plagued the bullpen, so they tried him out there. Forcing him into the rotation now would overextend him and jeopardize his future. Besides: He's kicking ass.

But don't worry, the Yankees say, because this is only a temporary solution. General manager Brian Cashman insists that Hughes will go back to starting next season. Essentially, he's doing with Hughes what he did with Joba Chamberlain. It's the smart play: If you have a pitcher as talented as Hughes or Chamberlain, you benefit more when they pitch more innings rather than less. (It's amazing how difficult this can be for people to understand. You want your best pitchers to pitch a lot. We're looking at you, Francesa.) And there will be a spot waiting for Hughes next season, considering this is probably the last season for Andy Pettitte.

Like Chamberlain, Hughes's destiny is to be a starter. The Yankees are insistent. Until they're not. After all, Rivera was supposed to be a starter too — and he struggled initially as a starter the same way Hughes often has so far. Will the Yankees mess with a good thing? Will Hughes be so great this season — and potentially, into October — that they wouldn't dare move him? If the Yankees have the next Rivera on their hands, they can't waste him, can they?

Yes: It's the Joba debate all over again. These are good problems to have.

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Photo: Getty Images