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.

About Brad Vietrogoski

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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. “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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.