Similar to the consumption habits of most Americans during Thanksgiving, the Minnesota Twins are devouring free agent starting pitching at a frenzied pace. On Wednesday, it was Ricky Nolasco. On Saturday, the Star Tribune’s LaVelle Neal reported that they were in agreement with Phil Hughes on a three-year deal.
The deal, which is contingent on a physical that Hughes must pass, is a three-year, $24 million contract.
Hughes' numbers, both last year and over his career, are underwhelming. He was 4-14 last year with a 5.19 ERA and is 56-50 with a 4.54 ERA for his career. His strikeout rate is mediocre (7.6 K/9 for his career) and he has been hurt by home runs, especially lately (59 home runs in 337 IP over the last two years).
But there are several caveats to those numbers that made Hughes attractive to other teams, including the Royals, Marlins and Mets. The Twins have been targeting him since at least July. You may also remember that Hughes was mentioned as part of the package the Twins requested from the Yankees during the Johan Santana trade talks. That's a pretty good place to start with why Hughes remains in favor despite recent struggles.
In 2008, the Yankees weren’t willing to trade Hughes for Santana. Read that last sentence again. Actually, let me rewrite it, with the hidden words shown. In 2008 (eight years into their “drought” of not winning a championship), the Yankees (for whom dollars are nothing more than monopoly money) were not willing to trade (21-year-old pitching prospect) Hughes (with all of 72 innings of major league experience) for Santana (who had finished in the top five of Cy Young voting for four consecutive years).
That speaks to exactly how highly Hughes was thought of. And it’s not like the Yankees had too much pitching. Their starting rotation was mediocre (16th in ERA in MLB) and their winningest pitcher was Chien-Ming Wang. Santana was exactly the guy they needed, and all they needed to do was swap some prospect for him and pay him, just like the Mets did. But they wouldn’t part with Hughes.
Hughes was one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, and was projected to become the new ace of the Yankees staff as early as 2008, starting to fill in for the aging arms of Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, all of whom were over 35. But a fractured rib derailed 2008 and raised questions about his durability, which we’ll get to later. Part way through 2009 he was moved to the Yankees' bullpen, where he was outstanding, helping the Yankees win their only World Series title of the millennium.
He returned to the rotation in 2010, where it became apparent he was a poor fit for Yankee Stadium. Hughes is an extreme fly ball pitcher, and right-handed, which makes Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch his bane. His career ERA pitching in the two Yankees Stadiums is 4.96, versus 4.10 on the road. The difference? He’s given up more than twice as many home runs at home.
The hope is that escaping from New York, whether it be the ballpark, the media or the expectations, will allow Hughes to become the pitcher everyone expected five years ago. That hope might be even more realized if his home park is Target Field. Because he was so young when promoted by the Yankees, he will be only 27 years old through the first half of the 2014 season. He’s entering his prime.
From a raw stuff standpoint, he’s solid (7.5 K/9 and 92.4 mph fastball last year), has good control (2.6 BB/9) and isn’t afraid to throws strikes (66.7% of first-pitch strikes over the last four years). The biggest concern is his durability. He’s battled some nagging back and shoulder issues, but has made 61 starts over the last two years, throwing 337 innings.
Hughes represents a calculated risk/reward move for the Twins. If the move away from NYC works, he has the potential to be a solid #2 starter for the next few years at a relative bargain price. And then he can hit the free agent market as a 30-year-old for a big pay day. If not, the Twins are overpaying a back-of-the-rotation pitcher, an asset of which they already have a glut. There are big numbers on both sides of the ratio, but the Twins can afford the risk and desperately need the reward.
It also means the Twins are likely done adding pitching. At least three spots in the rotation are now spoken for by free agents signed the last two years: Ricky Nolasco, Kevin Correia and Hughes. It seems likely Samuel Deduno, who posted a 3.83 ERA last year before being sidelined with a shoulder problem, will also have a spot if he shows he’s healthy. That leaves a last spot for several younger pitchers with lesser track records, like Scott Diamond, Vance Worley, Kyle Gibson and Andrew Albers.