Hughes always looking forward, never back
After up-and-down tenure with Yanks, righty anticipating fresh start with Twins
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Phil Hughes is happy to be a member of the Twins, a tad disappointed in how he left the Yankees, but looking forward, always looking forward.
The right-hander will forever have his fondest memories. He played with the famed Core Four -- Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, particularly building a great relationship with Pettitte -- before their careers petered out.
There was the 2009 World Series title, the last thus far of 27 for the Yankees. Fond memories, but now just that. Hughes is the anticipated anchor of Minnesota's revamped pitching staff.
"The change of scenery can't hurt," Hughes told MLB.com while seated in front of his locker before working out with his new team at Hammond Stadium on Thursday. "Not to say that I couldn't have had success if I had stayed in New York, not to say that it was wearing on me, but there are certain times in relationships when you feel it's better to move on. So I think the change of scenery will do me some good and I'm looking for some big things here."
Hughes, now 27, is a Southern California kid and a lifetime Yankee. A first-round pick -- 23rd overall -- in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, he came up in New York's system. Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain were the young arms the Yankees staked the future on just like a generation ago the Mets had hoped to build an era around pitchers Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson. In both cases, it didn't happen.
The Yankees' trio of such promise is now scattered to the wind. Kennedy was traded by the Yanks to the D-backs and is now pitching in San Diego and, like Hughes this past offseason, Chamberlain moved on to the Tigers as a free agent.
"I mean, that's baseball," Hughes said. "In a perfect world, you all remain starters and you're winning 20 games for the team that drafted you. As you've seen thousands of times before us, that's just not the case. Sometimes the expectations for you are blown up so far it's hard to reach that level.
"But I have no regrets about my time in New York, whether I was supposed to be the next whoever. Sometimes that's hard to live up to. I'm not going to say that all my years in New York were disappointments, because I don't feel that way. I feel like I grew a lot there. I feel like I had some successful times, and obviously some not so successful times, too. Sometimes it's unfortunate that you leave somewhere on a bad note. That's how things ended up. But that's life."
Hughes, an 18-game-winner in 2010 and a 16-game winner in '12, struggled through a 4-14 record with a 5.19 ERA last season. It was one of those injury-plagued years for the Yankees and one of those off years for Hughes when almost every pitch he elevated seemed to land in the bleachers. The upside to Hughes is still his huge potential. If there's a downside, it's his propensity for allowing homers, 24 last year, 35 the year before and 112 in his seven-year career.
That should be negated somewhat with a home-field switch for Hughes from homer-happy Yankee Stadium to Target Field. The 142 homers allowed last year at the yard in Minneapolis was next to last in the American League and 25 less than the ballpark in the Bronx.
That fact certainly played into his decision about signing with Minnesota, Hughes said, after mutually determining that a return to New York was just not an option. The Twins, Angels and Mariners were his top three choices. Playing in Anaheim, just north of his hometown of Santa Ana, was enticing, but Hughes ultimately jumped at the three-year, $24 million contract offered by the Twins.
"The Angels were right there," Hughes said. "Seattle made a good push. But Minnesota gave me the years that I wanted, and obviously the ballpark is more conducive to my style of pitching. I just thought that was a good fit for me, so that was that. I felt like it was the right place."
And so, Hughes is training about two hours south of Tampa, Fla., and his old Yankees mates as he settles into his new digs. Hughes is looking forward to having a healthy and full Spring Training this year after back problems sidelined him all last spring, which he thinks might have been the root of his problems.
"I didn't have a Spring Training game last year and was supposed to make a rehab start, but that got squashed and I made my first start in Detroit," Hughes said. "Spring Training is there for a reason. It's a time to figure out what's going wrong. I just didn't have the repetitions and the innings I needed to get ready for a season."
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Hughes will have those reps and innings this spring.
Meanwhile, Hughes has watched with interest as Jeter announced his retirement and he continues to exchange text messages with CC Sabathia, one of his best friends on the team.
"That's the things you miss the most when you leave somewhere, those relationships that you've built," said Hughes. "You can't replace those things. Obviously with Jeter's last year, there's going to be a lot of hoopla over that. It'll be fun to see his going out party. I'm kind of glad I can view that from a distance."
Hughes knows. He was there last season for Rivera's grand finale tour and the departure of Pettitte, who Hughes called a lifesaver.
"We were real close," Hughes said about Pettitte. "He was like a father figure to me. Ever since my first Spring Training, he took it upon himself to be a mentor. We shared lockers for the last few years. He was a guy I could lean on if there were ever issues or problems. So I was glad to be there for his last season."
Now, suddenly Hughes is the young veteran, pitching for a ballclub that really needs him. Sitting in front of his new locker in a different environment, he is not the kid anymore. Hughes knows he may soon become the mentor to some yet-to-be identified young man.
Looking forward, always looking forward.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.