Homer Bailey, Tim Lincecum, and Phil Hughes. You were supposed to pick one and argue on his behalf before the 2007 season. There weren't the only three right-handed pitching prospects in baseball, but there was mostly certainly a three-righty tier at the top. Hughes was the #4 prospect in baseball, Bailey #5, and Lincecum #11.
In August of 2009, Bailey matched up against Lincecum. The former gave up five runs, including a home run to Eugenio Velez*; the latter pitched seven strong innings, striking out seven and allowing two earned runs. Bailey's ERA ballooned to 7.11; Lincecum's shrank to 2.20, and he was on his way to a second Cy Young.
Around this time, Phil Hughes was a crackerjack reliever on a team that would win the World Series. I know that seems like an awkward transition. While millions of people were starving, the king lived in luxury. But we'll tie it all together.
After that 2009 season, the argument was mostly finished. Lincecum was an ace, a best-case scenario. Hughes was a big arm with room to grow, and he could go either way. Bailey was something of a bust, though everyone was awfully careful not to utter those words around him. He was only 23, after all. (But he was a bust.) (He couldn't even strike anyone out in the majors.)
In July of 2013, Bailey matched up against Lincecum again. The first pitch Lincecum threw in the game went to the backstop. Then he threw two more balls. The sixth pitch of the at-bat was ripped for a double. Only a strong wind and the setae atop Hunter Pence's glove kept it from being a home run. The rest of the game featured strikeouts, a couple of walks, more strikeouts, and a ball that did leave the yard. It was a typical Lincecum start, as newly defined.
Bailey cut through the Giants with his fastball, throwing his second no-hitter in his last 18 starts. That doesn't include the postseason, in which he allowed just one hit to the Giants in seven innings before Dusty Baker removed him after 88 pitches to … protect his arm or something. You know Dusty. But it was clear which pitcher was throwing and which one was pitching. Bailey looked like the best pitcher on the planet. Lincecum looked lost before he looked confident before he looked lost again.
While all this was going on, Phil Hughes was dominating the Twins. He was doing this because he enjoys confusing us all. He's up, he's down. He's a floor wax, he's a dessert topping. He's hard-throwing Phil Hughes, he's soft-tossing Phil Hughes. He's 167 games into his career and a free agent after the season, and no one has any idea what to make of him.
Like we know Act III yet. Nick Punto bulks up and becomes a slugging first baseman. The Tigers move Miguel Cabrera to shortstop. Bryan Bullington saves 40 games for the 2017 Red Sox. We think baseball is baseball, but baseball thinks baseball is Calvinball.
And that applies to these three pitchers, too. The book was written after 2009, remember. Lincecum was the golden god; Hughes was the relief ace who could make a star turn in the rotation; Bailey was eaten by a Venus prospect trap. Now, four years later, someone scribbled something in the margins of the book and crossed chunks of text out. Bailey has the best chance of being a star, a pitcher with a mid-90s fastball he can put wherever he wants. Hughes is as maddening as ever. Lincecum might be a succession of one-year tryouts instead of a franchise player.
Except you know that's not how it's going to turn out. Bailey might break out as he's always threatened to do, or he'll fall back into old habits and pitch closer to his career 4.42 ERA. Hughes might build on his promise and forge a late-blooming career like Max Scherzer, or he might grind out one of those Carl Pavano, completely nondescript-but-useful careers. He gets older, and the prospects stay the same age. Yes, they do. And Lincecum might be the next Dennis Eckersley in four years, or he might be with the Long Island Ducks, trying to claw his way back. Whatever happens, just know that you didn't predict it.
Seriously, pick one right now. Pick one for the next 10 years. You'll probably go with Bailey for obvious reasons, but that would also miss the point of all this. Which is that we don't know anything. For his career, Bailey has as many wins above replacement as Lincecum had in the first half of 2008. That arm is still technically attached to Lincecum, and maybe there really is a way to wring more out of it. And Hughes still has the power and the command -- his fastball ranks 12th in the American League in average velocity, and he has the highest first-pitch-strike percentage in baseball.
I'm not going to pick. That's just a great way to look stupid.
You knew that pitchers are, were, and always will be mercurial. They don't make any sense as prospects, and they don't make any sense as veterans. But if you're looking for a shorthand way to explain that, think of the troika of right-handed pitchers who pitched on Tuesday. Think of them as prospects before the 2007 season. No one knew exactly what was going to happen. Give us another 15 years, and we'll have it all figured out. Maybe.