Phil Hughes And The Hard Lesson Of Prospect Hugging

Phil Hughes, master of packing on mass

(The following is being syndicated from An A-Blog for A-Rod)

I’m usually pretty good about letting things go when it comes to the Yankees (except some of Joe’s bullpen moves and sac bunts), but one thing that still stuck in my craw right now is the recent revelation that Phil Hughes came into camp out of shape in 2011 and the suggestion by the organization that he’s going to bounce back in 2012 because he’s spending this offseason training hard again and getting back to the shape he was in before 2010.

I’m on the record as stating that I’m an unabashed Hughes fan and apologist.  He’s listed on my “AB4AR Man Crush Hall of Fame” and even this disastrous 2011 season and recent news that could possibly explain that disaster won’t change that.  But 2011 and the constant ups and downs in Hughes’ career over the past few seasons, after the high hopes that were held for him and the pedestal he was put on early in his Minor League career, are just the latest reminder that baseball prospects are as tricky and unpredictable a business as anything and we as fans would be wise to never get too attached to any of them.

Prospects typically don’t pan out for one of three reasons: injury, lack of skill development, or lack of personal/professional development.  What makes Phil Hughes’ case particularly frustrating is that he has been a victim (probably the wrong word) to all three of those pitfalls.  Since making his Major League debut in 2007, Hughes has suffered injuries to his hamstring, oblique muscle and ribs, and his throwing shoulder.  He’s gone from a pitcher known for a great fastball and curveball with command to match to a pitcher with a questionable fastball, a curveball that is inconsistent, an array of other offspeed pitches that he has tinkered with on and off but none that he’s used enough to become effective, and command that seems to come and go at any time.  And now he has confirmed some of the whispers that have been around regarding his work ethic by having the organization confirm that he came into camp out of shape in 2011 because he didn’t go to the training facility that he used prior to his career-best 2010 season.

The resume that Hughes had prior to 2007 paints him as a can’t-miss, sure thing, “no doubt about it” future All Star, Cy Young winner, and Hall of Famer:

  • 2004 High School 1st Team All-American
  • 2004 MLB Draft 1st-Round Pick (Age 18)
  • 2006- Named #1 Yankee Prospect by Baseball America, called one of the best pitching prospects in the Minors (Age 20)
  • 2007- Named #2 Prospect in all of baseball by Baseball Digest (Age 20)
  • 2007- Invited to Yankees’ Spring Training (Age 20)
  • 2007- Threw 6.1 no-hit innings in just his 2nd career start (Age 20)

He was on the fast track to being the next great Yankee pitcher, right up there with Whitey Ford and Ron Guidry.  But since then things haven’t panned out, for the reasons mentioned above.  This is not to say that Hughes is at complete fault for how his career path has gone in the Majors.  It’s not like the guy wanted and tried to pull his hamstring or break his ribs.  It just happened.  And the Yankees certainly didn’t do him any favors by shuttling him from the rotation to the bullpen and back from ’09 to 2010.  But when a prospect is as hyped as Hughes was, and you buy into that hype as much as I did, and then the performance doesn’t match the hype, it’s a crushing blow to the fan ego.

I should be wearing Phil Hughes jerseys to the office at work and boring all my friends to tears with stories about how I always knew he was going to be this good because of his MiL K rates as he prepares for another season as the Yankees’ ace.  Instead, I’m sobbing into a pillow at night while listening to “Unbreak My Heart” by Toni Braxton after each of his inefficient 4-inning outings and cursing myself for being duped while I read that Hughes is going to a glorified fat camp in California and will come into the 2012 season once again on the fringe of making the rotation.  It all adds up to the same conclusion you have to come to with prospects, that conclusion being that you just never know. 

And it is this not knowing that we as Yankee fans must always be mindful of and remember when evaluating prospects.  Manny Banuelos could be the second coming of Johan Santana or he could be a pile of crap.  Mason Williams might turn into the next Ken Griffey Jr. or he might be bagging my groceries in three years.  Dante Bichette Jr. could become a better player than his old man or he could break his leg in a car accident when somebody runs a red light and never play again.

There are so many factors, both internal in terms of a player’s own makeup and external in terms of the situation they’re in, the coaching they receive, and the luck (good or bad) they experience, that contribute to how his career plays out.  And there’s no way for us to know how all of those factors are going to add up for each player.  Because of this, we cannot allow ourselves as fans to get too attached to any prospect, no matter how amazing his stats look or how high his ceiling is.  Phil Hughes is just the latest example, and I’m as guilty as anybody for drinking the Hughes-Aid for as long as I have.  And now I have nobody but to blame but myself for being hurt by Phil and his inability to live up to the hype.

Prospects are like hot girls you meet at the bar who turn out to be crazy.  You can talk to them and about them, look at them, have fun with them.  But don’t get too attached to them.  Because more often than not, you’re just going to end up getting hurt if you do.

Born in Dover, Delaware and raised in Danbury, Connecticut, Brad now resides in Wisconsin, where he regularly goes out of his way to remind Brewers fans that their team will never be as good as the Yankees. When he’s not writing for IIATMS, he likes to spend his time incorporating “Seinfeld” quotes into everyday conversation, critiquing WWE storylines, and drinking enough beer to be good at darts.

25 thoughts on “Phil Hughes And The Hard Lesson Of Prospect Hugging

  1. This is great, Brad. Pretty sure every fan in Yankeeland — or at least, fans around our age groups — feels similarly about Hughes’ career path thus far.

    That said, I don’t know that I’ll ever give up hope, and I still think Hughes can be an asset this coming season.

    • T.O. Chris

      No doubt Hughes can be an asset to this, or any team for that matter. But I think the expectation were always unreasonable, and the definition of success for him has to be redefined.

      I never understood the whole “future ace” projection personally. He seemed like a great young talent,I followed his rise, and I expected good things. But the projections on someone with as straight a fastball as he had/has, and basically two pitches never made any sense to me. I always saw him as a guy with a number 2 upside, but would likely settle in as a middle of the rotation 3. I honestly still think he can be that number 3, but I’m less convinced by the day he will reach that potential. Especially when it seems at least from the outside as if he doesn’t work as hard as he should to do so. There was really no excuse for coming in heavy this past year, he hasn’t had the kind of success to warrant that kind of attitude.

      • bg90027

        I agree with pretty much everything you said. He never really had a great fastball. It was above average in speed but straight. Combined with the curve, it was more than enough to get people out but it wasn’t by itself an elite pitch.

        That said, I totally fell in love with Joba and did think he was a sure thing Ace starter as long as he could stay healthy.

    • Thanks, Larry. And I don’t think I’ll ever give up hope either. Phil could have his arms and legs cut off like the Black Knight and I’d still be hopeful going into a start of his.

      And as much crap as I’ve given him for being sloppy about his conditioning, I also think he can be an asset next year if he gets back into shape.

      • Kevin Ocala, Fl

        “What’ll you do? Nibble my bum?” Funny how a ‘cult movie’ has become, almost, commonly used metaphorically…Hang in there, he may yet build the career that ‘doesn’t fall into the swamp’ ;)

  2. T.O. Chris

    Very well written. I believe prospect obsession (as much as it happens with every team) has really become a problem with Yankee fans because of the lack of prospects allowed to develop all the way to the end. With most teams when your top guys come up they make it or flop, but you get to see it all play out in your uniform. With Yankee fans most of our top guys have those stories play out for good or bad in another teams jersey.

    I believe because of this Yankees fans are so tired of seeing young talent traded that flop or star they want to see the story through to the end with the Yankees. Which often times makes them defensive about their guy, and can at times really build into unrealistic expectations for every young talent we end up with.

    I’ve within the last year read multiple different people write about how Betances, Banuelos, and Brackman would all be Yankee starter, and Betances and Banuelos in particular are going to be co-aces. This was just never likely. As you point out most top guys fail, even the very best of prospects in the whole game have a low success rate for fulfilling their projections. The truth is if either Betances or Banuelos becomes a 200+ inning starter period for any number of years that would be a success. If one becomes a middle of the rotation guy, and the other one becomes a setup man/closer that would be a turnout we should all be grateful for. This doesn’t mean we should revert back to the days when everyone was traded no matter what, but it does mean that just because someone is a top prospect they shouldn’t be labeled “untouchable” or “only available for Felix Hernandez”. To honestly say (as I’ve read) that Betances and Banuelos ceilings are only matched by a guy like Hernandez is somewhat ludicrous. Especially considering that while both could potentially have ace ceilings, I would say both have flaws more suited to being labeled with number 2 ceilings. With the chance to add more to their game than they have now and be re-evaluated at that time.

    I also think a lot of time when we talk about ceiling we have to realize that the phrase ceiling means reaching the absolute peak of your talents potential, something very few men ever do. Many very good players don’t access every part of their potential and end up good, but not quite at that ceiling projection. When we refer to a guy like Montero as having a “Frank Thomas potential” or a “Manny Ramirez potential”, we have to realize that it’s much more like he becomes the next Carlos Lee instead. Which isn’t an insult at all, because I think any one of us would (should) be happy with that kind of production from Montero.

    I could talk about this subject all day, and I know sometimes it comes off like I’m some kind of prospect hater I guess but the truth couldn’t be further from that. I just don’t agree with the notion that succeed or not it’s better to watch a home grown talent go through his ride than it is to trade him for a productive player, who may provide as much or more value than the prospect traded.

    • roadrider

      I just don’t agree with the notion that succeed or not it’s better to watch a home grown talent go through his ride than it is to trade him for a productive player, who may provide as much or more value than the prospect traded.

      The operative phrase being may provide as much or more value. Established players are often just as big a crap shoot as prospects since relatively few can sustain their performance from year to year but can demand big money and long-term contracts that can cause roster and payroll inflexibility to either sign as free agents or to waive no-trade clauses.

      Ask the Mets about Johann Santana or the Reds about Ken Griffey Jr – two guys that anyone would have considered “no-brainer, can’t miss” acquisitions. Or, for a more recent example, ask the Yankees about Mark Teixeira whose production has declined in the past two seasons and is signed to an un-tradeable contract for 5 more years (true he only cost money and draft picks but you get the idea).

      • T.O. Chris

        Veterans are much more likely to sustain their productivity than prospects are to ever give you production in the first place.

        In regards to Santana, no one thought he was a “no-brainer” and in fact there were plenty of people both fans and scouts projected health concerns going forward with Santana. It’s one of the main reasons the Yankees limited who they were and were not willing to trade for him.

        Also if you look at the return for Santana The Twins got nothing. None of those prospects have turned into anything at all, and in fact 3 of the 4 are no longer on the twins, with the only remaining member of the deal still in Triple A.

        Carlos Gomez- worthless bat and traded to the Brewers for JJ Hardy, Hardy was then traded to the O’s for two minor league pitchers who haven’t pitched for the Twins at all.

        Phil Humber- DFA’d by the Twins later picked up by the White Sox.

        Kevin Mulvey- placed on waivers and claimed by the Diamonbacks.

        Deolis Guerra- in Triple A never seen ML action.

        Also Santana has never been bad for the Mets, he simply hasn’t maintained his health. But when you consider the Twins have nothing to show for, the Mets won the deal in hindsight anyway.

        2008- 234.1 IP, 7.91 K/9, 2.42 BB/9, 2.53 ERA, 3.51 FIP, 3.61 xFIP, 4.8 WAR
        2009- 166.2 IP, 7.88 K/9, 2.48 BB/9, 3.13 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 4.05 xFIP, 2.6 WAR
        2010- 199.0 IP, 6.51 K/9, 2.49 BB/9, 2.98 ERA, 3.54 FIP, 4.13 xFIP, 3.5 WAR

        Nobody got a great deal out of this trade, but the Mets clearly came out better in the deal than the Twins did.

        • T.O. Chris

          The only person involved in the Griffey trade that was any good was Mike Cameron, and even though he has had a very good career Griffey still had enough value over his time with the Reds to equal Cameron’s production. Considering that Cameron also only played 3 years in seattle, Griffey actually out valued Cameron’s time there.

          • T.O. Chris

            I’m on mobil so that’s why I had to respond 3 times to 3 different parts of your comment.

            However regarding the Teixeira comment… that is ridiculous! Teixeira has nothing at all to do with this conversation because 1 we didn’t trade for him, 2 because we had no first base prospects that he took time away from, and 3 because without Teixeira we likely don’t win the WS in 2009.

            So no I don’t get the idea at all for mentioning him as he has nothing to do with prospect hugging, or trading vets for establishedmajor league talent.

          • roadrider

            I think you missed my point entirely in each of your responses. Your point was that experienced players are usually a better bet than prospects but qualified it by saying they may provide as much or more value.

            My point, had you cared to actually understand what I wrote, is that there’s risk in any player acquisition, irrespective of what is given up in a trade. Santana and Griffey both suffered injuries that limited their contributions relative to the financial commitments needed to acquire them. Yes, just about all of the guys the Mets and Reds gave up in those deals were roster filler but neither Santana nor Griffey were (are) the same players they were prior to their acquisitions. Of course they provided more value than the guys they were traded for but that’s setting the bar awfully low isn’t it? And that argument doesn’t address the real cost of obtaining players of that caliber – that is, salary and roster flexibility.

            As far as Teixeira I specifically said that he did not cost players in a trade (or didn’t you bother to read that part?). The point is that he has not been the complete hitter he was prior to his acquisition. He has developed some alarmingly bad habits at the plate, particularly from the left side where he has become a one dimensional slugger (which he has acknowledged) and his productions has undeniably declined over the past two seasons. He may be just a Kevin Long makeover away from turning it around or he may be at the precipice of an early decline phase. It’s not that he hasn’t provided any value but that given the commitment in dollars and years he costs it’s questionable whether he, or anyone for that matter, can live up to that deal.

            I just Tex him as an example of how player performance cannot be taken for granted over time even for the top players in the game.

            You’ve made a number of posts in this forum advocating trading propsects for ptichers like Gio Gonzalez and Matt Latos who have put up good numbers in weak hitting divisions and playing their home games in extreme pitchers parks and also for signing a guy (Darvish) who may not be available to the Yankees at all and who may require some time at AAA to adjust to North American professional play and also for retaining Freddie Garcia who is highly unlikely to repeat his performance from last year yet will be probably be able to demand a major league contract (perhaps for more than one year). All of those moves are far bigger crap shoots that the acquisitions of Santana, Griffey and Tex were and the point is that even those guys don’t come without risk. So while I would agree that it’s easy to overvalue prospects it’s just as easy to overlook the risks in acquiring established players.

          • roadrider

            Oh and by the way – the Yankee prospects you typically talk about trading (Montero, Baneulos) are better than any of the guys the Mets or Reds traded for Santana and Griffey – a lot better.

          • T.O. Chris

            My point actually was never “experienced players are usually a better bet than prospects”. My point was that I don’t believe that I would rather watch a prospect mature star or flop rather than trade one for a veteran player, as many do and have said they do.

            I don’t believe in trading all prospects, I don’t believe in not letting prospects develop, but I also don’t believe in prospect hugging to the point that every prospect you has becomes “untouchable”. My whole point is that no player regardless of hype is untouchable in the right deal.

            Griffey Jr hit 213 HRs as a Red, that is a pretty high bar if you ask me. One that Brett Tomko and Mike Cameron never came close to setting themselves. Just because there is risk in acquiring a player doesn’t elevate the risk in keeping a prospect at all costs.

            Everyone understands Teixeira’s decline, but he is still one of the best 1B in the entire game. He also barley fits into this conversation at all, except on the most minor of hypothetical levels.

            This team needs a number 2 starter, if you don’t agree with that you haven’t watched this team enough to know their needs. If you can trade a 20 year Manny Banuelos with number 2 upside and receive that need now you have to do it.

            So now you don’t want the Yankees to sign free agents? What does that have anything to do with trading prospects? I also have never “advocated” signing Darvish, you have constantly refused to even listen to my point on that subject. I have said on many occasions that since I have never seen him pitch I can’t make an evaluation on Darvish, but if the Yankees scouts like him I am all for singing him. If they don’t like him I am all for letting him go, it’s whatever the Yankees feel he’s worth because they have actually seen him pitch.

            So now you are against re-signing Freddy Garcia? What does that have to do with prospects? I have said on multiple occasions that I would only bring Freddy back on a 1 year deal around 5 million. In other words a deal for depth, and if he doesn’t pan out he can be cut with no problem to the team at all.

          • T.O. Chris

            You have no idea how good Banuelos will be… It also doesn’t matter how much better they are than someone in a trade from another team. It matters how good they are in relation to who you are trading for, and how much you value said player.

            I have never once advocated trading Montero for just anyone, I have only proposed trading him for someone who is an ace. However I am not one of the closed minded people who think only Felix Hernandez is worth Montero.

            As far as Banuelos goes I have also only been willing to propose trading him for a top 2 pitcher in his early to mid 20’s. A deal in which we trade Banuelos and very little more for Gio Gonzalez is a complete win, and almost the same as trading Austin Jackson for Curtis Granderson. Are you going to point out how bad that trade is?

  3. Betsy

    This was not a recent revelation; it was reported in ST that Phil came into camp overweight. This is what galls me; it’s not too much to ask to come into camp in shape – I hated it when Abreu and Damon slacked off and it boggles my mind that Phil did. At this point, I don’t think he has much future with the team. I don’t care if he comes into camp the best shape of his life if he can’t throw a good curve and change. I’m not sure why anyone should have faith that he will learn those pitches when he’s shown an inability to do so. At one point he may have had that curve, but it’s gone now.

    I thought Phil was a gimme, but so be it……who can honestly project how any kid is going to develop?

    • bg90027

      I know I read somewhere that Phil said he had abandoned the curve after the injury in Texas out of fear of re-injuring himself but that he was now determined to go back to it.

      As far as developing other pitches go, I think people underestimate how hard it can be to develop new pitches. There are some guys who can mess around in the bullpen and then just bring it into a game but that’s the exception. For most, they might tinker in the offseason and in spring training but after that, they don’t mess with anything new and if something they were working on isn’t working in games, it can get quickly abandoned.

      So, to some extent, it may just be a matter of persistence and determination — essentially Phil may realize that he can’t live anymore without the secondary pitches and has to stick with them to improve them even if it means pitching worse before he pitches better.

  4. Scout

    “Because of this, we cannot allow ourselves as fans to get too attached to any prospect, no matter how amazing his stats look or how high his ceiling is.” I could not agree more strongly, and I have been making this point in comments for some time.

    I think we engage in “prospect hugging” more now because the Internet provides us with vastly more information about minor league players than was available twenty or even ten years ago. There is also a tendency in any organization (and among its fans) to overvalue its assets. Hughes is a good cautionary tale against that danger.

    • bottom line

      Sorry folks, but there is no alternative to “prospect hugging,” especially with the new CBA. Wit their sources of young talent choked off by Selig, the Yankees will be squeezed right out of the top tier in baseball. Nobody can fill a team with free agents. Already, the Yankees have three eating up close to $80 million. There’s simply a limit to how many any team can afford. We’re up against that limit right now. The only way to continue winning is to produce a steady stream of quality youngsters who can offset costly free agents. With six to ten players in their first four years, the Yanks may be able to manage that.

      Meanwhile, “prospect huggers” gratefully remember Munson, Mattingly, Guidry, Rivera, Jetyer, Posada, Pettitte, Cano and a few others who were not hallucinations and who were not overhyped.

  5. smurfy

    BS. A few pounds last offseason proves nothing. My guess is it is the excuse the brass is choosing to cover their overuse the prior year, the real reason his shoulder was taxed.

    And his fastball was not straight the first half last year, but displayed a marked rise, one which got misses, quick as you please.

    • T.O. Chris

      Scouts have been criticizing Hughes’ straightness on his fastball since he was a prospect in the minor leagues. The words “straight as a string” use to follow him in every report I ever read. He can throw a baseball at the top of the zone for a K, something he got better at coming out of the pen, but he’s never had tons of movement on his fastball.

      Also when wasn’t his shoulder taxed? Because I’ve heard this excuse used for his second half in 2010, his awful year last year, his injuries in 2008, and why he was put in the pen in 2009. At a certain point the career becomes one giant excuse with no return on the back end.

      • smurfy

        In the first half 2010, Phil got late rise 6 – 9 inches on fastballs high in the zone. It was beautiful, and I think I remember you acknowledging it, Chris.

        He will pay off yet. I expect him to do great things this year.

        • T.O. Chris

          Hughes can throw a fastball at the top of the zone for a strikeout. However he still has a really straight fastball, which is why when he throws it at the bottom of the zone he gets hit so hard. He doesn’t have this Doc Gooden like movement you are assigning to him, he never has, he never will.

          Considering he has never done great things I wouldn’t hold my breathe. He’s had one productive half a season in his entire career as a starter. Everything else was isolated good starts here and there, and then a good run out of the pen. He can still be a decent middle of the rotation arm, but he will never be a a number 2+ starter.

  6. nyyankeefanforever

    There are far more great ballplayers who succeeded beyond everyone’s early expectations than there are phenoms who lived up to their billing. The great leveler is character, and if someone ever came up with a surefire way to gauge it they would render every other metric obsolete.

    To borrow a quote from “A Bronx Tale,” one of my favorite all-time movies, the saddest thing in life is wasted talent.

  7. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is precisely why prospect hugging is such a fun and frustrating activity. Just look at the variance of responses here. Some people still support Phil, some have given up on him, some are trying to justify/explain his performance, and still some took this post as an invitation to comment on prospects as a whole.

    Exactly the type of feedback and conversation I was looking to start. Thanks to everybody for their responses. Now let’s all hope that we aren’t having this same discussion about Montero and ManBan, assuming they end up playing in Yankee uniforms.

  8. Good stuff, Brad. Agree completely.

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