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Thursday, April 11, 2013
First Pitch: Can Hughes get better?

By Andrew Marchand

Phil Hughes has been in the majors long enough that he will be a free agent at the end of this season. He has been an All-Star, an 18-game winner and an enigma.

In June, he turns 27 and we still don't know exactly if this is all there is. Two scouts classified Hughes as a No. 3 or 4 starter. Sounds about right, but is there more?

"There is more in the tank," an AL East scout said. "The ability is there, but he has been a roller coaster."

Hughes, who starts Thursday against the Indians, is in his sixth full major league season and is coming off of a career-high 191 1/3 innings in 2012.

From team imposed limits to injuries, Hughes has thrown more than 100 innings in only three of his eight complete seasons in professional baseball.

"When he is good, he is really good," a second AL East scout said. "His health and command is always a question."

The scouts likened Hughes to Mike Pelfrey and Edwin Jackson. Those comparisons are far from insults, but they point to middle-of-the-rotation starters who profiled as potential aces. In 2007, Baseball America rated Hughes the fourth-best prospect in all of baseball and that has translated into a good, but not great, career so far.

Phil Hughes
Hughes is in his sixth full major league season.
This past offseason, the 29-year-old Jackson received a four-year, $52 million contract from the Chicago Cubs. Jackson and Hughes own an identical 4.41 career ERA. Since Jackson's ERA has been mostly against National League hitters, you could argue that Hughes' is slightly more impressive.

"He is a middle of the rotation guy, which you can be as a two-plus pitcher," the scout said. "He has command of his fastball and curveball."

Hughes possibly evolved to more than a two-pitch guy when he finished 16-13 with a 4.23 ERA in 2012. He ditched an over reliance on his cutter and went to a more fastball-curveball-change-slider repertoire.

Still with is injury history, which includes a bulging disk in his back that he said he will have to maintenance the rest of his career, it is hard to say what Hughes will be worth at the end of this season. One of the scouts said he would pass on him because Hughes, even with just a pretty good year, will probably be offered big money and the risk-reward scenario for the scout wouldn't be worth it.

"I wouldn't pay for it," the scout said. "He has stuff like Mike Pefrey. Pelfrey is a four. Hughes can't stay healthy long enough to quantify who he is. Plus, a back problem for a pitcher is really bad. But someone will overpay. People sell their souls for pitching."

With the $189 million mandate, Hughes is an interesting free agent question. The Yankees would love to see Hughes breakout this season and make the decision harder and more expensive.

UP NOW: The Yankees were rained out, but we weren't. There is plenty of stuff from Wednesday on the blog.

ON DECK: Mark Simon will go inside the numbers on the newest Yankees. Wally Matthews and I will be on the blog all day and night. Thanks for reading.

QUESTION OF THE DAY: Can Phil Hughes get better?