Once upon a time, Phil Hughes was among the most highly touted pitching prospects in the game. A former first-round pick, he emerged as a dominant force in the minors, climbing to the No. 4 spot on Baseball America's list of top prospects before debuting in the majors at age 20 in 2007.
Sadly, the right-hander has never lived up to his immense promise. With a career 4.54 ERA and 1.32 WHIP, he has essentially been the definition of "average" over the course of his seven years with the Yankees. Most disturbingly, he has deteriorated as he's aged toward his physical prime. Hughes had some fairly impressive campaigns earlier in his career, including an 18-win 2010 season, but over the past three years he has posted a 4.85 ERA (86 ERA+), and fielding-independent metrics don't suggest that his results are greatly out of line with his performance.
Why Does He Fit?
Hughes offers two primary attractions: his age and the potential that he'll improve once removed from the AL East and hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium.
By virtue of his early entry into the majors, Hughes hits free agency for the first time at the uncommonly young age of 27. That means that -- unlike with most veterans on the open market -- he could be signed to a long-term deal that won't necessarily take him into his mid-30s. Unfortunately, as discussed above, while ages 27-32 are generally thought to be a player's physical prime, Hughes hasn't shown the improvement you'd like to see while edging toward this window. Still, considering that he's less than a year older than Kyle Gibson, he clearly fits into the Twins' long-term timeline better than a guy over 30.
Undoubtedly, Target Field would be a better environment for him than the ballpark in the Bronx. Hughes is an extreme fly ball pitcher, and one of his most glaring issues has been proneness to the long ball. Over the past three seasons, he has coughed up 68 homers in 411 innings -- an average of 1.49 HR/9 that ranks as the fifth-highest in the majors during that span. It stands to reason that many of those deep flies would die in the spacious gaps of Target Field, and then his consistently solid K/BB ratios become a whole lot more intriguing.
The notion that a change of scenery would benefit Hughes is backed up by his home/road splits; this year, he went 1-10 with a 5.88 ERA and 17 homers allowed in 16 starts at Yankee Stadium, compared to 3-4 with a 3.88 ERA and seven home runs allowed in 13 road starts.
Why Doesn't He Fit?
The Twins are seeking a starter who is a proven producer -- a guy who has been durable and has eaten up innings. Hughes doesn't really fit that bill. He has never thrown 200 innings in a season and has averaged just 147 since becoming a full-time starter. He completed six innings in 13 of his 29 starts this season. Only as a reliever has he excelled over an extended period.
Hughes was a high-end talent while coming up through the minors and he's flashed that ability at times in the majors, but in the current climate he'll likely require a significant investment, which would mean taking a major leap of faith. That would be pretty uncharacteristic for Terry Ryan and these Twins.
What Will He Cost?
In the Offseason Handbook
, we estimated Hughes' contract at three years, $30 million. That's seemingly a large amount to guarantee a guy who hasn't really produced in recent years, but the righty's youth -- in combination with his pedigree and potential -- could create a bidding war of sorts in a pitching-starved market where money is more flush than ever.
On the bright side, because of the hurler's poor performance this year -- especially down the stretch (he posted a 7.22 ERA in August and September) -- it sounds unlikely
that the Yankees will extend a qualifying offer, meaning that signing him won't cost a draft pick.