Can Phil Hughes Surprise Us?
Image courtesy of Rick Osentoski, USA TodayOver the past three seasons, while the condition of his shoulder has deteriorated, Hughes has tried just about everything to offset the decline of a fastball that was once his calling card.
He's thrown more changeups. He's attempted adding spin to his heater. He has undergone surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome not once, but twice.
Ultimately, nothing else will matter much if his latest operation – dubbed a "revision" on the first – doesn't take. Last year, he came back from the initial surgery experiencing the same symptoms of fatigue that necessitated it in the first place. There was no improvement. His fastball velocity registered at a new career low.
Mum's been the word on Hughes lately as he rehabs from an August 10th procedure that involved removing the remainder of his rib (half was taken out the first time) along with scar tissue, while cleaning up scalene muscles in the area.
If you're having a hard time counting on Hughes, that's more than understandable. He hasn't been a particularly effective pitcher since that 2014 season, which now feels like a very distant memory. But it's important to remember how good he was then, and at other times. Does that ability still does reside within him?
The new Twins front office, saddled with a $26.4 million commitment through the next two years, has no choice but to focus on his still-existent upside, no matter how remote the likelihood of achieving it at this point.
How should the team's decision-makers be planning around Hughes as they look ahead to next spring, when he's expected to be ready to roll?
I see two options, and one is clearly preferable in my mind.
1) Rotation Depth
It goes without saying that the Twins must come to camp with at least five starting pitchers slotted ahead of Hughes. Anything less would be grossly irresponsible. So, if the plan is to bring back Hughes as a starter, he's nothing but insurance. Presumably he wouldn't be able to supplant one of the five proven commodities in front of him, even with a decent spring showing.
When the season starts and he's on the outside of the rotation looking in, where do you go from there? Try sending him to Rochester so he can add to – dare I say – a starting logjam? Throw him into long relief, where he'll pitch sporadically in unpredictable bursts and struggle to build stamina?
It could be that Hughes is no longer built to throw 100 pitches every fifth day. So maybe it's time to commit to another path.
2) Return in Relief
Once upon a time, Hughes was the dominating setup man who paved way for Mariano Rivera in a championship season for the Yankees. That was a long time ago now – almost a decade – but he has shown he can do it. Most likely the 31-year-old's days as a flamethrowing weapon in the late innings are over, but his best bet to provide value could be in a middle relief role.
This would enable Hughes to throw in shorter stints, perhaps reducing repetitive wear on his arm, maybe even helping him regain strength. It would also be easier to make room for him in the pen than in the rotation.
Even if he doesn't approach the 94 MPH gas he was bringing back in 2009, Hughes has the control and aptitude to be an effective reliever if this surgery restores even a semblance of his previous zip. The Twins, of course, will take whatever bullpen depth they can get.
An optimist could even venture to think bigger. Other pitchers have been written off due to recurring injuries around the same age, only to bounce back resoundingly in a different form. That list includes Hughes's good friend Glen Perkins, who appeared cooked after shoulder issues wrecked back-to-back seasons and ended his career as a starter. Perk wasn't all that much younger when he reemerged as a reliever than Hughes is now.
It's a lofty hope, but one that is grounded in low expectations. Therein lies the beauty. Hughes has all the potential to surprise and little chance to disappoint.
One thing feels clear, though: If the Twins try to bring him along as a starter, again, hoping he can regain velocity over long outings and make it through lineups multiple times, we're destined to get what we expect.
- GoGonzoJournal likes this