New challenge for HennYoung left-hander looks to find niche as a reliever
Whenever Hughes takes the mound in Spring Training, crowds and whispers follow. After all, he is one of the most prized prospects in baseball. He dominated the competition at Double-A Trenton last season. He's drawn rave reviews from veterans. He's been compared to Roger Clemens based on his batting practice throwing. As one of the most highly-touted kids in the game, there are legitimate reasons for all the hype.
Ask Yankee fans what they know about the 25-year-old Henn, and you might not even get a response. A few may remember him from a disastrous three-start stint with the Yankees in 2005; his ERA was 11.12 and he lost all the games, including one to the Mets in which he gave up three home runs in 4 1/3 innings.
Some may recall that Henn was the starting pitcher for the Yanks last season in Toronto on Sept. 20, the night that a Minnesota victory over Boston gave them the American League East crown. He lost that game too. The major league memories involving the left-hander certainly are not pleasant ones.
Despite the struggles he's had during his limited experience in "The Show," the Yankees are following through on a plan for Henn that began last season while he was with Triple-A Columbus: to turn the lifetime starting pitcher into a reliever. While his ceiling is no longer as high as it once had been, Henn is still a lefty, which means that he could be in for a very long career if the plan is successful.
"At the beginning, I was kind of hesitant about it," Henn said in a recent interview with YES. "But I've really enjoyed it...it's nice...being that I came up with the Yankees...it's exciting seeing the opportunity that's in front of (me)."
Henn's starting days are behind him for now though as he focuses only on the future, though at the moment the Yankees appear to be fully stocked up on lefties out of the bullpen. Barring a trade, Mike Myers will reprise his long-running role as a LOOGY (Left-Handed One Out Guy), and judging by some of the comments Joe Torre has made during spring training, Ron Villone should make the club after re-signing with the team on a minor-league deal.
It doesn't look like there's a spot for Henn right now, but he clearly understands the situation.
"Obviously, Myers is the lefty specialist that we have, Henn said. "A one-inning, two-inning lefty-guy coming out in relief... I can do that. Last year I had a spot start there, so if that comes up, I can definitely do that. But as of right now, I'm just concentrating on the inning or two out of the 'pen."
During his two seasons with the Clippers, some of Henn's teammates included a variety of players who were "stuck in limbo," so to speak. Mixed in among future big-league regulars including Robinson Cano, and youngsters like Eric Duncan, were guys like Alex Graman and David Parrish, former top prospects whose days as pieces of the Yankee future were long gone.
But even if he begins the season with the Yankees' new Triple-A affiliate, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Henn will not be discouraged. Thanks to the efforts of general manager Brian Cashman over the last few years, minor leaguers have a sense of optimism absent from the organization for quite a while. In fact, seeing one of his old friends have success at the major-league level is helping to drive Henn himself.
"Me and Chien-Ming Wang... we've been boys since we both came in (to the organization)," Henn said. "He's probably exceeded the expectations, he's only going to get better... guys like him, and they've opened the doors for a lot of (us). You see him getting the job done and you think that you should be able to do the same."
Wang was on the injured list in 2001 when Henn began his professional career at Single-A Staten Island. Henn had previously been one of baseball's top junior college prospects, and he spurned Louisiana State University in order to join the Yankee organization. Through 42 innings of work that season, Henn posted a 3.00 ERA and a 10.50 K-per-9 ratio before being shut down due to elbow problems. T
Tommy John surgery followed, forcing Henn to miss all of the 2002 campaign, but he fought his way to Trenton in 2004, and the following season, he put up a sparkling 0.71 ERA in four starts with the Thunder before his initial call-up to the Yankees.
Even though working exclusively in relief is still a new task for Henn, playing at Legends Field is not. He's in his fourth training camp with the Yankees, and by now, he is used to the atmosphere that comes along with it.
"I was at (Hideki) Matsui's first camp, so (things were) a little crazy then," Henn said. "Then Alex (Rodriguez) came in and it was crazy. Then Randy Johnson came in... it's a little overwhelming, but when you tend to do it more and more, it just becomes part of the deal."