Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Phil Hughes And The Hard Lesson Of Prospect Hugging

(Phil Hughes, master of packing on mass)

I'm usually pretty good about letting things go when it comes to the Yankees (except some of Joe's bullpen moves and sac bunts), but one thing that still stuck in my craw right now is the recent revelation that Phil Hughes came into camp out of shape in 2011 and the suggestion by the organization that he's going to bounce back in 2012 because he's spending this offseason training hard again and getting back to the shape he was in before 2010.

I'm on the record as stating that I'm an unabashed Hughes fan and apologist.  He's listed on my "AB4AR Man Crush Hall of Fame" and even this disastrous 2011 season and recent news that could possibly explain that disaster won't change that.  But 2011 and the constant ups and downs in Hughes' career over the past few seasons, after the high hopes that were held for him and the pedestal he was put on early in his Minor League career, are just the latest reminder that baseball prospects are as tricky and unpredictable a business as anything and we as fans would be wise to never get too attached to any of them.

Prospects typically don't pan out for one of three reasons: injury, lack of skill development, or lack of personal/professional development.  What makes Phil Hughes' case particularly frustrating is that he has been a victim (probably the wrong word) to all three of those pitfalls.  Since making his Major League debut in 2007, Hughes has suffered injuries to his hamstring, oblique muscle and ribs, and his throwing shoulder.  He's gone from a pitcher known for a great fastball and curveball with command to match to a pitcher with a questionable fastball, a curveball that is inconsistent, an array of other offspeed pitches that he has tinkered with on and off but none that he's used enough to become effective, and command that seems to come and go at any time.  And now he has confirmed some of the whispers that have been around regarding his work ethic by having the organization confirm that he came into camp out of shape in 2011 because he didn't go to the training facility that he used prior to his career-best 2010 season.

The resume that Hughes had prior to 2007 paints him as a can't-miss, sure thing, "no doubt about it" future All Star, Cy Young winner, and Hall of Famer:
  • 2004 High School 1st Team All-American
  • 2004 MLB Draft 1st-Round Pick (Age 18)
  • 2006- Named #1 Yankee Prospect by Baseball America, called one of the best pitching prospects in the Minors (Age 20)
  • 2007- Named #2 Prospect in all of baseball by Baseball Digest (Age 20)
  • 2007- Invited to Yankees' Spring Training (Age 20)
  • 2007- Threw 6.1 no-hit innings in just his 2nd career start (Age 20)
He was on the fast track to being the next great Yankee pitcher, right up there with Whitey Ford and Ron Guidry.  But since then things haven't panned out, for the reasons mentioned above.  This is not to say that Hughes is at complete fault for how his career path has gone in the Majors.  It's not like the guy wanted and tried to pull his hamstring or break his ribs.  It just happened.  And the Yankees certainly didn't do him any favors by shuttling him from the rotation to the bullpen and back from '09 to 2010.  But when a prospect is as hyped as Hughes was, and you buy into that hype as much as I did, and then the performance doesn't match the hype, it's a crushing blow to the fan ego.

I should be wearing Phil Hughes jerseys to the office at work and boring all my friends to tears with stories about how I always knew he was going to be this good because of his MiL K rates as he prepares for another season as the Yankees' ace.  Instead, I'm sobbing into a pillow at night while listening to "Unbreak My Heart" by Toni Braxton after each of his inefficient 4-inning outings and cursing myself for being duped while I read that Hughes is going to a glorified fat camp in California and will come into the 2012 season once again on the fringe of making the rotation.  It all adds up to the same conclusion you have to come to with prospects, that conclusion being that you just never know. 

And it is this not knowing that we as Yankee fans must always be mindful of and remember when evaluating prospects.  Manny Banuelos could be the second coming of Johan Santana or he could be a pile of crap.  Mason Williams might turn into the next Ken Griffey Jr. or he might be bagging my groceries in three years.  Dante Bichette Jr. could become a better player than his old man or he could break his leg in a car accident when somebody runs a red light and never play again.

There are so many factors, both internal in terms of a player's own makeup and external in terms of the situation they're in, the coaching they receive, and the luck (good or bad) they experience, that contribute to how his career plays out.  And there's no way for us to know how all of those factors are going to add up for each player.  Because of this, we cannot allow ourselves as fans to get too attached to any prospect, no matter how amazing his stats look or how high his ceiling is.  Phil Hughes is just the latest example, and I'm as guilty as anybody for drinking the Hughes-Aid for as long as I have.  And now I have nobody but to blame but myself for being hurt by Phil and his inability to live up to the hype.

Prospects are like hot girls you meet at the bar who turn out to be crazy.  You can talk to them and about them, look at them, have fun with them.  But don't get too attached to them.  Because more often than not, you're just going to end up getting hurt if you do.

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