Yanks' Hughes waiting for his chance

Hughes biding time, thriving on pressure

TRENTON, N.J. -- After striking out eight batters in just four innings on a recent summer night, the Yankees' most talented, most hyped and above all, most mature prospect since a pitcher named Andy Pettitte, emerged from the clubhouse for interviews.

He wore an oversized, floppy Trenton Thunder hat held on by a rubber band strapped under his chin.

Meet Philip Hughes, the power pitching prospect who had the Yankees uncharacteristically thinking about more than this season's playoffs when making deals at this year's trade deadline.

He may seem like a veteran, but Hughes unintentionally reminded reporters that he did just turn 20 a little more than a month ago. Judging by the buzz surrounding him, or the way he has pitched, one couldn't otherwise tell he's only in Double-A.

It appears that's where Hughes will be for the rest of the season. One thing is now known, Hughes won't in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., or Milwaukee, despite swirling rumors that had him involved in several trade talks.

The understanding was that the Yankees could have had anybody on the trade market if Hughes was involved in the deal. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman passed until Hughes was out of it.

Hughes was too good to give up, and Cashman was willing to hold out to protect him.

"The Phillies got prospects in this deal, but there were certain guys that, at this point in time, I was unwilling to give up," Cashman said after acquiring Bobby Abreu on July 30.

Hughes' Double-A manager, Bill Masse, could then exhale. Even with Hughes all but off the market leading up to the deadline, Masse was still playing the role of a somewhat nervous general manager, although he tried not to show it.

"I wouldn't trade him for anyone in baseball," Masse said. "It would have to be something completely out of this world to trade him."

There has been some talk that the California resident wouldn't mind being part of the Red Sox, his favorite team as a child. Hughes' father grew up in Rhode Island and Hughes would go to games at Fenway Park during the summer.

"People always think I'm secretly rooting for the Red Sox or something," Hughes said with a laugh. "But that's not the case."

If Hughes has his way, he'll be with the Yankees for his entire career. But leading up to the deadline, the first-round draft choice in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft understood that baseball is a business. So he just went out and pitched.

More than his pinpoint low-90s fastball or up-and-coming curveball, it's that calm demeanor that has most impressed his coaches.

"This is a special, special kid," Masse said as if he were saying it for the first time, when in actuality he has repeated it over and over. "If any kid was made to pitch on the big stage it's this kid, just because of his makeup."

Hughes is 6-3 with a 2.67 ERA, and has 106 strikeouts in 91 innings this season at Trenton. Even with the scouts taking aim with their radar guns at Waterfront Park recently, Hughes still put on a show. He allowed one run in four innings while striking out eight and walking just one -- and he couldn't have looked more comfortable doing it.

"It's tough sometimes because there's always a little bit extra pressure on you to do well. But I kind of like it," Hughes said. "I can thrive off that pressure a little bit. If you can't handle the pressure and the high expectations in the Minor Leagues you're not going to do well in Yankee Stadium."

Cashman long ago ruled out the possibility that Hughes would take the Yankee Stadium mound this season. Trenton pitching coach Dave Eiland said Hughes is close to being ready, but he wouldn't recommend a promotion yet.

"Although if he had to, with his sheer ability, he probably could [throw the Majors this year]," Eiland added.

For now, the Yankees are sheltering Hughes' place in the organization and his precious arm. Hughes doesn't pitch more than five innings and usually tosses between 70 and 90 pitches.

Hughes is focusing on improving the command of his curveball and changeup, which Eiland feels is the only thing needed before Hughes is big-league ready. The power pitcher first learned the changeup in Spring Training, when he abandoned his slider.

"I feel like I'm a completely different pitcher than I was in high school," Hughes said.

Masse said he's seen vast improvements even since Hughes has been in Trenton. Still, even back in April during Spring Training, Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said Hughes had the best arm on the staff.

It was then that Jason Giambi compared Hughes to Roger Clemens, something Eiland said he could also see.

Hughes is most-often mentioned in the same sentence as Pettitte, the last Yankees player who had as much hype and composure as Hughes. But Pettitte was older by the time he dominated Double-A, and Masse said Pettitte pitched his way into more attention. Hughes has had it almost from the get-go.

While most coaches hate to make comparisons between players, or projections for how big a star prospects will be, Hughes' Trenton coaches don't seem to mind. They are that confident.

"There's going to be those comparisons, there's no way around it," Eiland said. "Any power-type guy, he's going to be compared to. But he doesn't try to be like anybody else. He just tries to be Phil Hughes."

Although he said it got repetitive, Hughes liked hearing his name on ESPN last month. He didn't shy away from comparisons and he heard all the rumors. He just didn't let it give him a big head -- figuratively.

Hughes literally does have a large head, inches wise. Before the game he was using a special device to stretch his hat out.

The floppy hat he donned afterwards was for comfort. When the cameras were turned off and the radar guns put to rest, Hughes was himself.

"I'm growing out of my old [hat]," Hughes said with a laugh. "I might need to showcase this guy."

He may pitch like Clemens, but Hughes is still a kid. One the Yankees aren't willing to let grow up outside of their home.

Ryan Mink is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.