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Not a Rookie: Phil Hughes

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Lots of people have been asking me about Phil Hughes, so here goes. First the brief career rundown.

Hughes was drafted in the first round in 2004, 23rd overall, out of high school in Santa Ana, California. He threw five shutout innings in a three-game trial in the Gulf Coast League. Scouts liked his projectability and his command of his low-90s fastball, along with a strong slider and changeup. I gave him a Grade B in the '05 book, worried about reports regarding a sore elbow.

Shoulder trouble limited him to 16 starts in 2005, but they went well, including a 1.97 ERA and a 72/16 K/BB in 69 innings in the Sally League, and a 21/4 K/BB in 18 innings in the Florida State League. He improved his curveball dramatically and began using it more than the slider, to reduce stress on his arm. I raised his grade to B+ in the '06 book, but was worried about injury risk.

Hughes threw 146 innings in 2006, split between five starts for Tampa and 21 for Double-A Trenton, where he went 10-3, 2.25 with a 138/32 K/BB in 116 innings. His velocity spiked into the 93-95 range, hitting 96 at times. The curveball also got better. Scouts were somewhat concerned about his erratic changeup, but overall it was hard to knock his performance. I gave him a straight Grade A, now considering that his injury risk was no higher than any other pitcher his age.

As you know, Hughes did have some durability troubles last year, Thankfully it was his hamstrings and a bum ankle that were the problems, not his elbow or shoulder. He held his own in major league action, very commendable given his age and the pressure of the New York environment, but his velocity was down at times, and again this year in the early going. In his major league career thus far, Hughes is 5-6, 5.14 with a 69/39 K/BB in 91 innings. He's been hit hard in April, and I don't like his 11/10 K/BB ratio in 2008.

So what is wrong with Hughes? I get panicked email from Yankees fans, asking if he was overhyped. No, he wasn't overhyped. Yes, there is a problem with Hughes right now. He's 21, practically skipped Triple-A, and is pitching for the New York Freaking Yankees. Cut the kid some slack. Indications are that his mechanics are a bit off right now , hampering his fastball command and probably the velocity too. As long as he remains healthy, I think there is a really good chance that Hughes will be just fine. Maybe he just needs some additional Triple-A time to regain his mechanical footing.

Ah, but there's the standard young pitcher caveat: as long as he remains healthy. I'm not worried about the mechanical problem in and of itself: that should be correctable. But what if the mechanical problem is a symptom of some underlying physical issue? That's known to happen, a pitcher altering his delivery on a subconcious level in response to a developing injury that he's not even aware of yet. Or what if there is no physical problem right now, but the mechanical tinkering triggers one as muscles are stressed in an unusual way? That's known to happen, too.

Yankees fans want a prediction. So here's one: Hughes will struggle on and off the next month or two, alternate strong outings with weak ones, with a slight improvement in his ratios but not enough to make statheads comfortable. Then in late July he goes on the DL with an injury of some kind, probably something vague like "shoulder weakness." He rests and rehabs, comes back in September and pitches like his normal self the rest of the way. He still may have to pay the Major Injury Piper sometime down the line, but not this year.. Whaddya think?