FORT MYERS, FLA. – Twins spring training rites include early-morning workouts on sun-splashed fields, new players settling into new surroundings … and Phil Hughes either junking a pitch or pulling one out of mothballs.
Last year it was the changeup. What is it this year, Mr. Hughes?
“Slider,” the Twins pitcher said. “The slider is my next pitch. I say that half-joking but last year, I messed around with the slider a little bit and it worked for me.”
Hughes would love for that ritual to be the most important thing for him this spring, but it is not. As much as he would like to return to the days of talking about a pitch with which he is tinkering, his health and future are at a critical juncture.
For the second consecutive season, he’s coming off surgery to treat thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition that affects circulation in his shoulder. It has limited Hughes to 26 appearances and 112 ⅔ innings over the past two seasons. For a pitcher who is making $13.2 million this year and next, that is not the return the Twins seek.
“You never want to be the guy that guys look at as being a bad contract and all that stuff,” said Hughes, 31. “That for sure motivates you extra, but I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself to begin with.
“You can talk about outside influences, but nobody is going to be harder on myself than I am. That always keeps me going and keeps me motivated to get back to what I was because that’s what I’m getting paid for, and that’s why I want to prove I can still do it.”
Once a staff ace who went 16-10 with a 3.52 ERA in 2014, Hughes must prove he’s healthy while winning a spot at the back end of the rotation. Once a foregone conclusion that he would be part of the rotation, he’s now in a mixer with fellow rehabilitation case righthander Anibal Sanchez and lefthander Adalberto Mejia. Righthander Tyler Duffey, for now, is being stretched out to start. And rookies Stephen Gonsalves, a lefty, and Fernando Romero, a righthander, could make things interesting.
Hughes faced hitters during live batting practice Tuesday and is scheduled to make his spring training debut Monday when the Twins play St. Louis.
“All reports are that his bullpen was encouraging, including pain-free,” Twins General Manager Thad Levine said, “and [pitching coach] Garvin Alston said he was intrigued by what he saw.”
The Twins were able to cobble together a rotation — remember, they used 16 different starters last season — to get them to the American League Wild Card game. That included signing Bartolo Colon and watching him post a 5.18 ERA.
It would be easier for them if Hughes could approach his form of 2014, but he has to get their attention.
“We’re trying to remain as optimistic about what he can do and a role he can fill,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “He’s got to be, I imagine, a little bit hungry to go out there and compete. He hasn’t had a chance to do what he does very frequently over the last couple of years. It’s not hard to see that we’ve got a need rotation-wise to fill some spots.”
Those were the same sentiments a year ago when Hughes arrived in camp following the first TOS surgery feeling healthy and ready to contribute. He worked on perfecting a changeup and opened the season by holding the White Sox to one run over six innings April 7.
But by May 22, Hughes was back on the disabled list. He returned in late June as a reliever, but that didn’t work. His pinkie and ring fingers were going numb and his shoulder was feeling fatigued. Symptoms of TOS all over again. After going 4-3 with a 5.87 ERA in 14 games (nine starts) it was back to the operating table.
Another part of his rib was removed and his pectoral minor — a non-vital muscle, he said — was detached in hopes of ending circulation problems in the area.
Now he’s back, but the events of the past year haunt him.
“As things moved along, I realized that my [velocity] wasn’t there and then the symptoms started creeping back in,” Hughes said, “so I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself because I’ve been down this road before.”
Hughes wants to come out and throw as hard as he can, impress his bosses and mark his territory. But two years of surgeries have him focusing on the progression to Opening Day. He won’t assess where he’s at until his endurance is built up to throw 100 pitches, then he will see where he is at physically. He hopes his numbers along the way will be enough to earn him a spot in the rotation.
Winning a job, by the way, also is a rite of spring training.
“As fun as it was last year to see the guys do well, selfishly, I want to be a big part of that,” Hughes said. “Prove that I can get back to that point. A lot of selfishness starts to come out when you’re gone for two years. You want to get back and actually be productive and be a part of it. It’s kind of where my mind is at right now.”