One sunny morning in Tampa in March 2007, I caught up with Joe Torre just before he boarded a golf cart for his short post-workout ride back to the Yankees' spring clubhouse. Neither Torre nor anyone else knew that he was about to begin his last season as the club's manager -- he would depart, with some acrimony, that October -- and I wanted to ask him about the very young man who nearly everyone figured was bound to be central to his rotation for years to come.
Phil Hughes was 20, and he had recently been named by Baseball America as the game's fourth-best prospect. I thought Torre might join the chorus of those who were singing the praises of Hughes' precocious fastball command and sturdy, 6-foot-4 build. He gently declined to do so. "Phil Hughes, he's got some work to do," was the first thing Torre said. "Pitching before you're fully developed, I think that's a lot of pressure, both physically and emotionally, on people." After a minute or two, Torre concluded his thoughts on the subject: Hughes had all the ingredients he needed to excel, but it might take him some time to consistently put them all together. "We know it's in there, and it's just a matter of when [will that] time come," Torre said.
The man who was once the future of the Yankees is now, at 27, firmly a part of their past: Last December, Hughes signed a three-year contract worth $24 million with the Twins. As Hughes pitched in New York -- seven seasons during which it seemed as if his time had come and then gone over and over again -- I often thought of what Torre had said. Then, it had seemed like a savvy manager's motivational tactic, which it certainly was, in part. In retrospect, it also came to seem like a warning: Even sure things aren't always sure things.
As a Yankee, Hughes was not a bust. He went 56-50 with a 4.53 ERA and won a World Series in 2009. He made the All-Star Game in 2010. He compiled a WAR of 11.0, a figure slightly better than both the only pitcher ranked ahead of him on BA's 2007 list, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and the one ranked directly behind him, Homer Bailey.
Still, those numbers do not begin to approach those once anticipated for someone touted as the next great Yankee, and Hughes knows it. "I won't say it was a burden, because it's obviously a great opportunity to have a lot of people think highly of you," Hughes said last Sunday of the billing that had been plastered to him when he was barely out of his teens. "But a lot of times it's hard to live up to such great expectations. You're going to have those growing pains, those times you're going to have to learn and find yourself in the big leagues. Obviously, injuries can slow things down. You see guys like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, those aren't always the norm. Guys don't always find extreme success like they've had."
When Hughes looks back at his career in New York, he has only one regret: That he finished it so poorly. In that final season, he went 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA. "Sometimes you wish you didn't leave a place on such a bad note," he said. "I know some fans will remember me more for that than anything else."
Even so, the new Twin added: "That's life, and I'm certainly glad to have landed here. It's a whole new chapter, and an opportunity to hit the reset button and move on."
After Hughes' first three starts with Minnesota, it appeared as if his story was bound to stay the same. He lasted just five innings in each of them and allowed four earned runs in each, good for an ERA of 7.20. Since then, though, something surprising has happened: He has pitched like a former top prospect whose time has, finally, come.
In his seven outings since April 20, Hughes has seven quality starts, five wins and zero losses. In those 46⅓ innings, he has struck out 30 batters and walked just one. It has, in fact, been five and a half weeks since he issued his last base on balls. His bottom line currently looks like that of a frontline starter: 5-1 with a 3.23 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 61⅓ innings.
For much of his time in New York, Hughes said, his repertoire was a work in progress, as he struggled to supplement his fastballs with the breaking balls that he thought every successful starter needed. For a while, he was throwing a lot of curveballs; then he tried a lot of sliders. This year, though, especially after his first three starts, he decided that it no longer made sense to pitch in the way he thought an effective starter had to. Instead, Hughes figured that he might try pitching as he had during his most successful spell as a Yankee, back in 2009 when he was primarily a setup man to Mariano Rivera; in 44 games in that role that season, he had an ERA of 1.40.
For Hughes, that meant not working around hitters but going after them first with his fastball, sometimes with his cutter, rarely with his curve and never with his slider. In May, nearly 90 percent of his pitches have been fastballs or cutters. "I think I've probably been more aggressive in these last six starts than I can remember at any point in my career," he said on Sunday, before he had made his seventh similar outing. "Basically just going after everybody. Actually, coming into 2010, when I had a great first half" -- he went 11-2 with a 3.65 ERA and made that lone All-Star Game -- "I carried over that reliever mentality, too. I feel like if my stuff is good enough, I can pitch that way."
Hughes knows that his cause has been helped by Minnesota's capacious Target Field, and that his current form can prove fleeting, as it did in 2010 (when, after the All-Star break, he went 7-4 with a 4.90 ERA). "Sometimes, when thing are going bad, you just can't get out of it," he said. "That quicksand sort of feeling." This year, though, he has been working from firmer ground. "My mechanics are the best they've been in a long time," he said. "I don't have to fight my body so much out there. [I'm] just lifting my leg and driving at the end."
Hughes grew up in southern California (the Yankees drafted him 23rd overall out of Santa Ana's Foothill High in 2004), and he thought that his baseball career's second act might come back home on the West Coast. During the offseason, though, he quickly changed plans after the Twins' offer proved lengthier than those he received from other teams, including the Angels, Giants and Mariners.
He spent spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., preparing for life not only with a new club but also as a new Midwesterner. He got help from Glen Perkins, the Twins' closer and a Minnesota native whom he had befriended when both were rookies and attended a symposium MLB had held for first-year players. Perkins served as his cultural liason: He gave him a crash course in hockey and in Twin Cities cuisine (Hughes learned about stuffed burgers and venison jerky) and also took him fishing. "I think if you don't fish, they kick you out of the state," Hughes said. "I think we were catching trout, I want to say? I'm not entirely sure."
When it comes to his angling, Phil Hughes has some work to do. But as far as coming through on his long-held potential? As far as catching Trout, you might say? It seems, finally, as if he's getting there.