I was still writing for the Scranton Times-Tribune when the Yankees moved their Triple-A affiliate to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre back in 2007, and I remember there was no more anticipated player on that ’07 roster than Phil Hughes. He was 20 years old, Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus agreed that he was one of the top five prospects in all of baseball, and he was already being compared to Roger Clemens. I’d seen Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels come through Scranton with the Phillies, but this was different. This was the Yankees, and this was their future ace. Supposed to be, anyway.
“It’s tough to live up to those expectations, I think,” Hughes said. “People talk about those kind of things and anything less is a failure, and that’s tough sometimes. So I think this was probably a good thing for me, just to go somewhere where I don’t have those things tied to me anymore and I can just be who I am and pitch.”
Hughes has pitched well since he got to Minnesota. He said he remembers throwing only one changeup all season — that pitch was always a big topic of discussion with him in the Bronx — and so far he’s 5-1 with a 3.23 ERA. His strikeout rate is basically the same as it’s always been, but his walks and home runs are way down. Obviously Hughes has never faced his former team, unless you count the time he pitched against Derek Jeter when the Yankees played the World Baseball Classic U.S. roster one spring. That game, Hughes was literally told to throw Jeter nothing but fastballs away so that there would be no chance of accidentally hitting and hurting him.
“I don’t think I have to do that this time,” Hughes said.
It’s kind of an interesting matchup: the guy who used to be knocked around in this ballpark against a lineup that’s trying to get going and start hitting for some real power. Hughes said he’s not expecting a good response from the crowd. His last season with the Yankees was especially rough — he was actually pretty decent in 2012 and legitimately promising in 2009-10 — and he’s obviously used to a negative response at Yankee Stadium.
“I have a lot of great feelings towards this city, towards the fans,” Hughes said. “But it’s tough when you leave somewhere on such a negative note, and that’s kind of how you’re going to be remembered by most, and that’s unfortunate. But I feel very fondly about my time here. As far as the transition, it’s been great. I don’t have any ill feelings towards anybody or anything. It’s just kind of the way things go. Like I said, leaving here on a bad note last year is tough, but what are you going to do?”
Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy have all moved on. Alan Horne, Steven White and Christian Garcia couldn’t stay healthy. Tyler Clippard, Jeff Marquez and Ross Ohlendorf became trade bait. An entire wave of Yankees rotation prospects has come and gone without having nearly the lasting impact that was expected more than a half decade ago.
“(Hughes) did some really good things for us,” manager Joe Girardi said. “He was pivotal in our bullpen for our championship run. Started I think the next year and won, I don’t know, I think 18 games or something. … This was a guy that took the ball, went out there and gave us everything he had. I think all the guys would tell you he was a great teammate and was fun to have around.
“I wish him a lot of luck, except when he’s pitching against us.”