Chalk up one more accolade on Phil Hughes' ever-growing list of accomplishments.
The New York Yankees' top pitching prospect -- and one of the most promising up-and-comers in the Minor Leagues -- was named MiLB.com's Double-A Starting Pitcher of the Year after starring for the Trenton Thunder.
A rarity in the Yankees organization, the 20-year-old right-hander has become a household name among fans -- and the subject of a media frenzy -- before he's donned the pinstripes for the first time. Chosen by New York in the first round of the 2004 draft, Hughes has been consistently dominant out of the gate, keeping his ERA well under 3.00 in his first two full seasons. And after a rude but brief awakening in Trenton that followed his promotion in May, Hughes put together what is arguably the strongest campaign of his fledgling career.
"After the first couple games, he just wasn't pitching up to the way he was advertised," Trenton pitching coach Dave Eiland said. "But his last seven or eight outings, he was just dominant. He completely overmatched hitters in the last two months of the season."
"My first five to seven starts there were definitely a couple of mechanical issues I needed to work out," Hughes admitted. "But I figured out I needed to make an adjustment, stop being tentative and pitch like I've always pitched."
He did just that. After posting a 4.98 ERA in his first six Double-A starts, Hughes had a 1.10 ERA in his next 15. In fact, after surrendering six runs to Portland on June 1, he held opponents scoreless in nine of the next 15 outings and yielded more than two earned runs just once. He ended up leading the Eastern League with a 2.25 ERA.
"Double-A is the biggest jump for young players. This is definitely an achievement," Hughes said. "I can't say that I'm surprised because I had such high expectations for myself coming into this season, but I was 19 for most of the season, so it's definitely an achievement. My biggest goal was to stay healthy and rack up the innings, so I'm happy with that."
But what has drawn the attention of coaches, media and even some veterans on the parent club isn't just Hughes' statistics.
"The stuff is a given. A lot of guys have stuff like (Hughes), but they don't have his makeup," said Eiland, a former big-league pitcher. "His maturity, the moxie he has, the way he goes about his business is rare for a kid who just turned 20 years old."
Known mostly for his crisp fastball and precise curve, Hughes was cited by Baseball America for having the Eastern League's best breaking ball and as the circuit's Most Exciting Player in 2006. But as he prepares for Spring Training, the California native plans to expand his repertoire by working on the change-up he learned to throw less than a year ago.
"My change-up is my biggest focal point for next season. Being able to command it is big for me," Hughes said. "Everything else, I'm pretty happy with."
"His change wasn't very good at first, but with his aptitude he grasped it quickly," Eiland said. "As the year wore on, he got better and better. He began using it more and getting outs with it and, when combined with his curve and fastball, he dominated the Eastern League."
Despite his success and talk of a big-league future, Hughes remains modest about his place in the organization, noting that the Yankees are rarely in "deep need" of anyone. But as Spring Training approaches, he plans to use his time in Tampa to try and work his way up to the Majors.
It's likely Hughes will start the 2007 season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. But Yankee Stadium is only a two-hour ride along Interstate 80.
"I see him in the big leagues at some point next year," Eiland said. "He may go through some growing pains like he went through in Double-A, but he's not going to be intimidated or scared, I can guarantee that."
At some point, the questions will shift from Hughes' talent to his ability to handle the Big Apple and live up to the already hyped reputation. Eiland believes that if his season in Trenton is any indication, it won't be an issue.
"The demand for his time, the headlines all year long, they didn't faze him. He's very laid back," Eiland said. "If it hasn't affected him yet, it's not going to."
"I know the whole hoopla about the New York media, but it is what it is," Hughes added. "It's like any other city, just on a big scale. I'm not too worried."