- Andrew Marchand, ESPNNewYork.com
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Phil Hughes didn't show up to spring training grossly overweight last February, but he'd packed on enough pounds to end up in what the New York Yankees call "fat camp." It is for players who need to up their conditioning a bit to ready themselves for the season.
With 2012 spring training now less than 100 days away, Hughes is reverting to the workout program that preceded his All-Star 2010 season, which makes Yankees GM Brian Cashman think an uptick in Hughes' performance will follow.
"I think in 2012, you are going to see that again," Cashman told ESPN New York. "He is determined. He is going to Athletes' Performance out there in California, which is something he did two years ago to be in optimal shape."
Cashman enters this week's GM meetings in Milwaukee looking for pitching. The prices, though, on the free-agent and trade markets may be too high. The Yankees can't be sure C.J. Wilson's personality will mesh in New York. Mark Buehrle's past success and potential as an American League East starter may not be enough to match his price tag. They have concerns about Roy Oswalt's back. They wonder if Hiroki Kuroda will return to Japan.
And Yu Darvish comes with the risk associated with making the transition from Japanese ball to the American game.
The fascination of the 25-year-old Darvish is that his upside is unknown. Hughes, just a month-and-a-half older than Darvish, has a major league body of work, but his future is still almost as much of a mystery as Darvish's. A stronger commitment could make the difference.
Last season, Hughes was supposed to graduate to become CC Sabathia's new wingman, the No. 2 starter the Yankees could turn to in the postseason. Instead, he arrived to spring with a couple of extra pounds on his frame and a few miles per hour missing from his fastball. He finished the year 5-5 with a 5.79 ERA.
"He came him into spring training a little bit out of shape," Cashman said. "Not grossly, not overly, but he wasn't in optimal position when spring training opened. That is not going to happen in 2012. He had to deal with it. We have what we call 'fat camp' so he went into that program to do the extra work to close the gap. You are in better position if you can get that all taken care of in the wintertime."
In 2011, the Yankees could not figure out where Hughes' fastball went until finally they gave him a cortisone shot for inflammation in his shoulder. While he wasn't great when he returned in June, Yankees talent evaluators thought he had his legs under him and superior life on his pitches.
There are numbers that back this up. In 2010 as an All-Star, Hughes pitched spectacularly through May, going 6-1 with a 2.70 ERA. The rest of the season, he was 11-7, but his ERA shot up to 4.97 over the final four months. Overall, Hughes finished 18-8 with a 4.19 ERA.
In 2011, after returning from the DL in better shape and with a better fastball, Hughes went 5-3 with a 4.55 ERA. The Yankees were 8-3 in his 11 starts.
Post-DL, Hughes had seven quality starts, which is defined as six innings pitched while allowing three runs or fewer.
But here is the kicker: If Hughes can match the numbers of his final 11 starts in 2011 over the entire 2012 season he could be better than his All-Star year. He would have 21 quality starts compared to the 15 he picked up in 2010.
Among the free-agent pitchers, only Wilson (23), Buehrle (22) and Kuroda (22) had more than 21 quality starts last season.
Behind Sabathia, Cashman will have Ivan Nova, A.J. Burnett and Hughes. Maybe Nova improves on his stellar rookie season. Burnett seems like a sure bet to be the inconsistent pitcher he has been the past two years.
The Yankees may just re-sign Freddy Garcia, take a heavy look at Hector Noesi as a starter in the spring and look to Hughes -- and Nova -- for more. Hughes will likely make only a little more than the $2.7 million he pocketed last season.
If you were to gamble on any of the free-agent pitchers or Hughes, who would you pick? Hughes is younger than all of them. If he is committed to being in optimal shape less than 100 days from now, the decision -- especially considering the finances -- seems easy.
ESPN Stats & Information's Derek Czenczelewski contributed to this story.
3hJohn Fisher, ESPN Stats & Information