End of the Road for Phil Hughes and the Twins
Image courtesy of Jesse Johnson, USA TodayThere's no question. Terry Ryan's extension for Hughes in December of 2014, with two years still remaining on the pitcher's contract, was an ill-advised one.
It now will cost the Pohlads, who may be able recoup some of the money through insurance (though I've seen nothing to that effect as of yet).
But if ever a guy was deserving of such a leap of faith, it was Hughes. Let's not forget: this was a 27-year-old free agent, a former first-round draft pick and elite young talent coming off a down season, who – rather than taking the usual make-good-and-move-on route – signed for three years at a stunningly reasonable rate in Minnesota.
Then, Hughes went on to deliver one of the top three seasons by a Twins starter in the past decade. And at the end of it, when he came one out short of reaching a $500K contract escalator at 210 IP, he turned down the team's offer to pony it up. Said it would set a bad precedent. Even for a millionaire pro athlete, that is a lot of money to walk away from.
It added to a respect that I'd already built up for Hughes. I enjoyed watching him early in his career from afar, even as a member of the hated Yankees. I was a huge fan of his contract with the Twins – to this day, I consider it the finest Ryan ever signed (even if the extension negated that brilliant stroke).
And watching Hughes pitch in 2014 was a true delight. He was at the pinnacle of his craft, consistently hitting spots with lethal precision while setting the all-time MLB record for K/BB ratio.
For what it's worth, according to FanGraphs, Hughes was worth $44.7 million in that season alone, accounting for about two-thirds of the $66 million he'll make in his tenure with the club. And while he's never come close to approximating that performance in four seasons since, he has tried.
After throwing a career-high 209 innings in 2014, Hughes saw a serious velocity drop in 2015. He fought through and tossed 155 innings with a respectable 4.40 ERA. We all hoped his arm would rebound the next year; he was still under 30, after all.
It didn't. Hughes lost more arm strength in 2016 and his performance became untenably bad. A line drive to the leg ended his season, but only beat to the punch the real culprit: a bum shoulder. He underwent surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome a few weeks later.
Hughes rehabbed and came back to spring training in 2017 feeling optimistic. But it quickly became apparent he still didn't have it. The Twins tried him as a reliever for a while and then, realizing the same symptoms were inhibiting him as before, had him go under the knife for a second time to relieve his enduring shoulder condition.
The success rate for two-time TOS surgery recipients is very low. Hughes recognized that. Through it all, he kept trying to tinker and find some way to get major-league hitters out. Even in my brief interactions with Hughes while covering spring training in Ft. Myers, it was obvious the man experiments relentlessly to find any kind of edge.
No amount of tinkering, however, can offset a nonfunctional shoulder. The decision to move on was sadly long overdue, and allows the new front office leadership to move on uninhibited by his burdensome presence on the roster.
Hughes is still only 31 years old. It's very possible he'll find his way back after a lengthy period to rest and strengthen his shoulder. I really hope he does.
But it wasn't going to happen here. And now that chapter is closed.
As of Monday night, the Twins had not announced a replacement for Hughes on the 25-man roster, though we're hearing it'll likely be Ryan LaMarre. The vacant 40-man spot should soon be filled by Trevor May, eligible to come off the 60-day DL in a week.
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