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Hughes the "real deal"

Top prospect excelling in camp, but Yankees taking a patient approach
03/03/2007 10:49 PM ET
By Walter Villa / Special to YESNetwork.com

Hughes has been impressive, but needs more experience.(AP)
TAMPA — Yankees fans are calling him the team's best prospect since Derek Jeter was drafted in 1992.

Yankees slugger Jason Giambi compared him to a young Roger Clemens.

And Baseball America hails him as the No. 1 pitcher in the minor leagues.

But to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, pitcher Phil Hughes, 20, is proof positive that his farm system is on the way back toward producing low-cost, high-quality players who can contribute to a championship.

Yankees manager Joe Torre said earlier this week that the plan was not to rush Hughes, who on Thursday pitched 1 1/3 innings, allowing one hit, two walks, one wild pitch and one run in the Yankees' 2007 Grapefruit League opener.

"I expect (Hughes) will start the season in [Triple-A] Scranton," Torre said. "But that is a decision we will make as an organization at the end of the spring."

While their competitors figure to be scrambling for pitching at the July 31 trade deadline, the Yankees plan on having an ace — literally — in the hole in Hughes. He pitched 152 innings in 2006, and the plan is to extend that just a bit — to roughly 180 — in '07. The Yankees are being cautious to guard against an arm injury for a pitcher who has only five years of experience on the mound.

"I started out as a catcher," said Hughes, who grew up in Southern California and went to Santa Ana's Foothills High. "I switched to third base after a couple of years and didn't become a pitcher until high school. I am still learning in a way."

Hughes, who is 6-5 and 220 pounds, said he shot up to 6-4 between his sophomore and junior years. Furthermore, his fastball rose in velocity from 82 to 93 MPH. Suddenly, he was a prospect. He set the school record with 23 wins in his last two years of high school.

Hughes then signed a scholarship with nearby Santa Clara University, but he really wanted to play pro ball and was hopeful he could get drafted by the hometown L.A. Angels. The Angels, however, opted instead for Long Beach State pitcher Jered Weaver. The Yankees took advantage, drafting Hughes with the 23rd pick in the first round. And in two full years and 45 starts in the minors, Hughes is 21-7 with a sparkling 2.13 ERA.

"He's the real deal," Giambi said. "The ball explodes out of his hand. When he is ready, he is going to be nasty."

Just when that will be is the question on the lips of many Yankees fans. Hughes, a laid-back Californian, said he is willing to be patient.

"Of course I want to start the season in the big leagues and stay there," Hughes said. "I think anyone would. But the Yankees have a plan for me. My job is to be ready when they need me."

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