WHO'D HE come upwith, the Mets?" Phil Hughes asks.
If the 20-year-oldYankees pitching prodigy is a little fuzzy on the details of Doc Gooden'smagical 1984 debut season, that's understandable. Hughes, after all, was borntwo years after that. But there's no shortage of baseball people who thinkHughes can arrive in the majors with an impact similar to Gooden's. "Imarvel at him," says Yankees pitching coach Ron Guidry, himself a onetimephenom for the Yanks. "He has the ability. He knows it, and he showsit."
The hard-throwingHughes is as laid-back as he is confident. He grew up in southern OrangeCounty, Calif., about as far removed from the Bronx, geographically andtemperamentally, as you can get. To perhaps the biggest question in Yankeescamp--"Is the kid ready?"--his stock answer is, simply, "I'm reallynot sure. I never pitched in the big leagues.
"Whateverhappens," he adds, "happens."
What will likelyhappen is that Hughes will start the season at Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre,having dominated at Double A Trenton last season, going 10--3 with a 2.25 ERAand striking out 138 batters in 116 innings, while walking only 32. He alsoshowed an improved command of his curve and an ability to mix in a changeupwith his moving, 97-mph fastball, making Hughes, says a scout, one of the twobest prospects in baseball (along with Reds wunderkind Homer Bailey). To keephim off the Opening Day roster, some say, is a waste. "If you're going totake a guy in the first round and he performs the way he has, why have him ridebuses in the minors when he can help the major league club?" one ALexecutive says.
With the back endof the rotation as iffy as it is, the Yankees' front office, behind the scenes,hasn't closed the debate on going north with the kid (though, in a perfectworld, says G.M. Brian Cashman, he'd spend the entire season at Triple A).Regardless, you won't hear any complaints from Hughes, who has a good sense ofhis place in a room that has Derek Jeter--the Yankees' last No. 1 pick to playfor the big league club--in the locker immediately to his right. "Being inthis clubhouse," Hughes says, "kind of humbles you."
Every pitcher has three primary goals: to strike batters out, avoid walks andkeep the ball in the yard. Hughes has done each of those in spades. In theminors he's struck out 269 batters while walking only 54 in 237 1/3 innings,and he's allowed just six home runs. Even if Hughes starts the season in TripleA, talent will force the issue, as it did last year with the Twins (FranciscoLiriano) and the Angels (Jered Weaver). In fact, PECOTA, a BP prediction modelthat projects a player's numbers based on the performances of up to 100historically comparable players, expects that Hughes will have the lowest ERAof any Yankees starter.
BOTTOM LINE: A call-up around Memorial Day, and a 9--6 record with a 3.78 ERAin 19 big league starts.
Guidry (second from right) has been impressed by Hughes, but won't rushhim.