Many minor leaguers might consider the label "Top-ranked prospect" a glorious burden because of the extremely high expectations that accompany it. Not so with Phil Hughes, Scranton Wilkes-Barre's 20-year-old right-hander.
Hughes, a native of southern California, is not only the top pitching prospect in the Yankees' organization, but is widely considered the No. 1 prospect in baseball.
"I have high expectations for myself," he admits, dismissing any pressure. "There are thousands of other people who would want to be in my shoes. I'm fortunate to be blessed with the situation I'm in. High expectations happen to go along with it."
Interestingly, Hughes' family pedigree can be traced to football, not baseball. His great-grandfather, Frank Granger, played for the NFL's Green Bay Packers back in the leather-helmet days. "My Mom didn't want me playing football, though, because of all the injuries her grandfather suffered," recalls Hughes. "Baseball was the next best thing. I was an 'outdoors kid' and grew up with the game. Over the years I really came to love it."
Ironically, Hughes grew up as a Red Sox fan, something that can be viewed as an "occupational hazard" considering his current employer. His father grew up in Rhode Island, though, and like most sons adopted his Dad's team. "I wasn't a die-hard Red Sox fan," admits Hughes, diplomatically. "But if there was a team that I favored in the playoffs, it was them. I liked Nomar Garciaparra and Mo Vaughn, but I was never the kind of kid who'd ask for autographs or hang Red Sox posters on my bedroom walls."
Hughes, now a 6' 5", 220-pound pitcher, began playing the game as a Little Leaguer. His favorite spot was third base, though he played a lot of different positions and credits that experience with allowing him to learn the basics of the game. In fact, his advice to today's Little Leaguers is "not to get too focused on one position." "Keep an open mind," he advises. "Do whatever it takes to play the game. If your coach wants you to play a different position, try it. You never know what'll happen."
It wasn't until his senior year at Santa Ana's Foothill High School that Hughes gave serious thought to a pro career. "I was a decent high school player," he says. "But I really didn't pitch until my sophomore year and even then it was mostly in relief. My junior year I got bigger and stronger and I started to throw harder."
Iran Novick, Foothill's pitching coach, was a major influence on Hughes. "Iran has a great reputation in Southern California for developing young pitchers," says the Scranton Wilkes-Barre hurler. "I was very fortunate to have him as a high school pitching coach because he stressed development. Winning wasn't the most important thing, and that philosophy is hard to find anywhere at the high school level these days. His pitchers have gone on to successful college careers at places like UCLA, Rice, and USC. Iran really prepares his pitchers for the next level."
Under Novick's mentoring Hughes developed his mechnics as well as a tough-minded mental approach to pitching. The 2004 Foothills squad also posted a 24-4 record and made it to the second round of Southern California's sectional playoffs.
The Yankees signed Hughes right out of high school in 2004, making him their No. 1 draft pick. Since then, he hasn't disappointed them.
During his three-year minor league career, Hughes has compiled an impressive 21-7 record and a remarkable 2.12 ERA. Baseball America rates him as having the "Best Curveball" and Best Control" of all pitchers in the Yankees farm system.
In addition to the mechanics, Hughes also possesses many of the intangibles of a very successful big league pitcher, such as confidence, stamina, and intelligence. He actually thrives on the pressure pitching engenders. "I've always liked to pitch," he says. "When you have the ball in your hand, you have to deliver. If you don't do your job, the team will have difficulty succeeding. I like have the weight of responsibility on my shoulders."
With that kind of track record, Hughes has the makings of a future big league ace and one who can crack the majors as early as this season.
Whenever that time comes, Phil Hughes will be ready and appreciative for the opportunity the Yankees have given him. "The Yankees are a first class organization," he says. "They've treated me with a lot of respect and have given me an opportunity that few players will ever enjoy. It's a privilege to be part of this organization."
No doubt, the Yankees and their fans feel the same way about him.
Bill Kashatus is a baseball historian who has authored 10 books, including a biography of Lou Gehrig. He can be contacted at bill@historylive
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.