LAST THURSDAY inTampa, the locker between Derek Jeter's and reliever T.J. Beam's was all butempty. Until the previous evening the stall had been used by the Future of theYankees, but now his nameplate and his belongings were gone, and so was themedia throng that had followed him around the major league camp. The onlyevidence that Phil Hughes had been a member of the 26-time world champions forthe preceding four weeks was the midnight blue number 65 jersey hanging on theclothes rod. "You don't take your jersey with you," explained Beam."They have different jerseys over there."
Over there refersto the minor league camp across Dale Mabry Highway, to which Hughes--viewed bymany as the second-best prospect in baseball, behind the Royals' Alex Gordon,and by Yankees fans as something closer to the Second Coming--had beenreassigned. Although the Yankees had planned the move all along, it's hard toimagine that they would have so easily sent down Hughes if the 6'5",220-pound righthander had dominated major league hitters the way he handledSingle and Double A batters last year (12--6, 2.16 ERA, 168 strikeouts and 34walks in 146 innings). He did not.
The cumulativeline for Hughes' three spring outings: 4 2/3 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 6 BB, 2 K,7.71 ERA. He struggled to throw his breaking pitches for strikes, continuallyfell behind in counts and then was forced to throw the fastballs that hitterswere waiting for. "It was kind of unexpected," says Hughes, the 23rdpick of the 2004 draft. "I've never really had a hard time getting ahead ofguys."
As manager JoeTorre says, when he begins discussing Hughes's performance in the major leaguecamp, "Phil Hughes--he's got some work to do."
Catcher JorgePosada, who last spring called Hughes's arm the best in camp, wonders if the20-year-old Californian has become too comfortable on the mound. "It seemslike he was hungrier last year, like he wanted to show people more," Posadasays. "He's going to be a very good big league pitcher for a long time, buthe's got to remember that he hasn't made it yet."
"Baseball isalways going to be that thing that drives me," Hughes says in response."I want to be the best there is. Whether I show that outwardly or not, itstill doesn't change what I feel."
An AL executivewarns against extrapolating, from half a game's worth of March work, the futureperformance of Hughes. "He showed a mid-90s fastball that he throws to bothsides of the plate," says the exec, "and signs of a pluscurveball." Even the Twins who knocked him around were impressed. "Ididn't know he was only 20," says Justin Morneau, the reigning AL MVP."He was pretty composed out there."
Hughes will startthe season at Triple A Scranton, where he will try to develop his changeup asan alternative to the fastball when he's behind in the count. "We'll seehim [in the majors] this season," predicts Morneau. Torre is still abeliever too. "I told him more than once, 'There's going to be a time whensomebody's going to tap you on the shoulder and say, It's your turn,'" theskipper recalls. "And that could come at any time."