‘Hart of the Order’
By Sean Hartnett
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In 2006, Phil Hughes was considered by major league scouts as the Yankees’ number one prospect. Scouts around baseball unanimously viewed him as a ‘cant-miss’ prospect and argued over whether he was the best overall starter in the minors.

The hype around Hughes was thrust to an even higher level after he impressed in 2006 spring training by blowing away Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui during a batting practice session.

“That kid is going to be good; he reminds me of Rocket. He’s young, but that fastball, it’s late. I don’t care what the radar gun says, it seems like it’s on top of you. He’s got good stuff,” Giambi told reporters afterward.

High praise also came from Posada. “He has the best arm in camp, no doubt about it. I don’t care how old he is. He’s unbelievable. It’s effortless the way the ball comes out of his hand at 95-96. He’s that impressive. He’s the best prospect we’ve got. It’s fun to see,” Posada said.

Fast-forward to 2012. Hughes’ career record is 36-23 but half of those wins came in 2010 when Hughes had his best statistical year as a Yankee.

Hughes went 18-8 that season with a 4.19 ERA but he tailed off in the second half.  He surrendered 25 home runs that season and to make things worse, Hughes was pounded in the 2010 ALCS by the Texas Rangers.  Hughes posted a 11.42 ERA during the series and was charged with 2 ALCS losses.

2011 was a ‘lost year’ for Hughes. He reported to camp overweight but more importantly, his fastball lost its zip. His velocity fell to an average 89 MPH and after he placed on the disabled list, it was revealed that Hughes had shoulder inflammation. He finished 2011 with a 5-5 record and a bloated 5.79 ERA.

It appeared that 2012 would be a clean slate for Hughes but when Andy Pettitte came out of retirement, many pointed to Hughes as the man who would be pushed out of the rotation and be forced into the bullpen once Pettitte was ready to make the jump to the majors.

Pettitte aside, Hughes was also competing for an immediate spot in the Yankees’ rotation with the highly-touted Michael Pineda and the trustworthy veteran Freddy Garcia.

Hughes responded by enjoying a strong spring and regained his velocity. He’s kept his fastball consistently in the 90-93 MPH range and has posted a 2.03 ERA through 13.1 spring training innings with 8 strikeouts. While spring training statistics are a small and debatable sample size, all signs point to Hughes having a bounce-back year in 2012.

He’s pitched his way into being a lock in Joe Girardi’s five-man rotation with Pineda and Garcia fighting it out for the final spot.

“I’ve done everything I can do,” Hughes recently told Mark Feinsand of the Daily News. “Whatever direction they want to go in, it’s their call. I feel like right now, I’m doing everything I can to make that decision as hard as possible. That’s all I really wanted to do.”

Injuries, inconsistency and switching between roles in the rotation and the bullpen hasn’t helped Hughes’ development but it’s easy to forget that Hughes is still only 25-years-old and can still make good upon his career’s early promise.

No one is expecting him to be Roger Clemens of the late 80’s but an equally unrealistic theory is that Hughes will spent the rest of his career struggling through mediocrity.

Hughes appears healthy, rejuvenated and determined to prove himself as a dependable major league starter in 2012.  I think Yankee fans will be pleasantly surprised by what the see from Hughes this season.

Can 2012 be a bounce-back year for Hughes? Share your opinions below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.


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