WHO'D HE come up
with, the Mets?" Phil Hughes asks.
If the 20-year-old
Yankees pitching prodigy is a little fuzzy on the details of Doc Gooden's
magical 1984 debut season, that's understandable. Hughes, after all, was born
two years after that. But there's no shortage of baseball people who think
Hughes can arrive in the majors with an impact similar to Gooden's. "I
marvel at him," says Yankees pitching coach Ron Guidry, himself a onetime
phenom for the Yanks. "He has the ability. He knows it, and he shows
Hughes is as laid-back as he is confident. He grew up in southern Orange
County, Calif., about as far removed from the Bronx, geographically and
temperamentally, as you can get. To perhaps the biggest question in Yankees
camp--"Is the kid ready?"--his stock answer is, simply, "I'm really
not sure. I never pitched in the big leagues.
happens," he adds, "happens."
What will likely
happen is that Hughes will start the season at Triple A Scranton/ Wilkes-Barre,
having dominated at Double A Trenton last season, going 10--3 with a 2.25 ERA
and striking out 138 batters in 116 innings, while walking only 32. He also
showed an improved command of his curve and an ability to mix in a changeup
with his moving, 97-mph fastball, making Hughes, says a scout, one of the two
best prospects in baseball (along with Reds wunderkind Homer Bailey). To keep
him off the Opening Day roster, some say, is a waste. "If you're going to
take a guy in the first round and he performs the way he has, why have him ride
buses in the minors when he can help the major league club?" one AL
With the back end
of the rotation as iffy as it is, the Yankees' front office, behind the scenes,
hasn't closed the debate on going north with the kid (though, in a perfect
world, says G.M. Brian Cashman, he'd spend the entire season at Triple A).
Regardless, you won't hear any complaints from Hughes, who has a good sense of
his place in a room that has Derek Jeter--the Yankees' last No. 1 pick to play
for the big league club--in the locker immediately to his right. "Being in
this clubhouse," Hughes says, "kind of humbles you."
Every pitcher has three primary goals: to strike batters out, avoid walks and
keep the ball in the yard. Hughes has done each of those in spades. In the
minors he's struck out 269 batters while walking only 54 in 237 1/3 innings,
and he's allowed just six home runs. Even if Hughes starts the season in Triple
A, talent will force the issue, as it did last year with the Twins (Francisco
Liriano) and the Angels ( Jered Weaver). In fact, PECOTA, a BP prediction model
that projects a player's numbers based on the performances of up to 100
historically comparable players, expects that Hughes will have the lowest ERA
of any Yankees starter.
BOTTOM LINE: A call-up around Memorial Day, and a 9--6 record with a 3.78 ERA
in 19 big league starts.