Phil Hughes has exchanged one set of pinstripes for another, leaving the New York Yankees as a free agent and signing with the Minnesota Twins for three years and $24 million. Hughes was the top pitching prospect in baseball a few years ago, but never fully lived up to expectations in New York. Here's a look at his career and my take on whether this is a good signing or not.
Hughes was drafted by the Yankees in the first round in 2004, from high school in Santa Ana, California. He was the 23rd overall pick in the draft, thanks to a low-90s fastball, promising (if inconsistent) secondary pitches, and good command for a high school power pitcher. He threw five shutout innings over three games in the Gulf Coast League, fanning eight with no walks, for his pro debut. I gave him a Grade B entering 2005, writing that he could be a star, but noting that scouts had concerns about mechanics that could stress his elbow.
The Yankees sent him to Low-A Charleston to open 2005. He was excellent, posting a 1.97 ERA with a 72/16 K/BB in 69 innings with only 46 hits allowed. He made four more starts for High-A Tampa with solid results (3.06 ERA, 21/4 K/BB in 18 innings) but his overall workload was limited by a bout of shoulder soreness.
The numbers were great however and scouting reports were glowing, pointing to increased velocity and impressive development with his curveball and change-up. I moved him up a notch to a Grade B+, with the main concern being durability.
Hughes returned to Tampa to open 2006, thrived (1.80 ERA, 30/2 K/BB in 30 innings) and was quickly promoted to Double-A, where he blew away the Eastern League, posting a 138/32 K/BB in 116 innings with a 10-3 record and a 2.25 ERA. He was up to 95 MPH now, showing a strong curve, slider, and change-up, with strong control and commanding mound presence. Best of all, he stayed healthy. I gave him a Grade A entering 2007, rated as the top pitching prospect in baseball and a potential number one starter.
As you know, that's not what happened. His '07 rookie season was solid enough (4.46 ERA in 73 innings,102 ERA+) for a 21-year-old, but hamstring, rib, and oblique injuries limited his pitching time, especially in 2008. He had a fine year in the bullpen in '09 (3.03 ERA, 96/28 K/BB in 86 innings, 152 ERA+) then returned to the rotation in '10 and won 18 games with a 4.19 ERA, 102 ERA+.
But he didn't dominate the way that was anticipated when he was younger, and his last three seasons have been problematic, with below-average performances in '11 and '13 in particular. He was hampered by injuries both seasons and became something of a whipping boy in New York. On the other hand, his healthy 2012 season was similar to what he did in '10.
Overall, Hughes is 56-50, 4.54 ERA in 781 innings, with a 656/245 K/BB ratio, ERA+ 95, FIP 4.31, and 11 fWAR.
There's no question that Hughes didn't live up to lofty expectations, though health problems were a factor. He seems like a guy who will benefit from a change of scenery, and the Twins supposedly have a long-standing interest in him. He's maintained strong K/BB ratios throughout his career, and Target Field will be a friendlier environment for his fly ball-heavy style of pitching than the short porches in New York.
The list of similar pitchers is quite interesting. Through age 27, Hughes most comparable Bill James Sim Score list is Jason Marquis, Gavin Floyd, Joel Piniero, Gil Meche, Adam Eaton, Ricky Nolasco, Joe Blanton, Johnny Marcum, Eric Milton, and Kyle Kendrick. Note the presence of Ricky Nolasco, Minnesota's other big free agent arm, as well as Piniero, Meche, and Blanton, who all showed up on Nolasco's comps list themselves.
None of those guys turned into Roger Clemens after the age of 27, but there were some respectable inning-eaters there, particularly Marquis and Piniero. The highest peak looks like Gil Meche, who was quite similar to Hughes at this stage of his career: a stagnating former top prospect prone to nagging health problems. Meche had two strong seasons with the Royals after signing a big free agent contract. His arm eventually fell off as you know, though before that happened the idea that he would perform more effectively with a new team proved valid.
Overall, Hughes at three years and $24 million seems like a reasonable deal to me in the current market. Don't expect Hughes to turn into a superstar, but he should be an upgrade over guys like Mike Pelfrey, Pedro Hernandez, or Scott Diamond, possibly a very substantial upgrade if the change in scenery benefits him to the maximum extent.
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