Twins sign second starter in a week with Phil Hughes

MINNEAPOLIS — A new team. A new stadium. Even a new jersey
number.

Phil Hughes and the Minnesota Twins are hoping the fresh
start results in success for the 27-year-old right-hander.

Hughes was officially introduced Thursday after signing a
three-year, $24 million deal to join the Twins. He’s the second free agent
pitcher Minnesota has signed this week as the Twins also inked right-hander
Ricky Nolasco on Tuesday to a four-year, $48 million contract. The veteran duo
was signed to help shore up a starting rotation that was among the worst in
baseball last year. The Twins’ starters had a combined ERA of 5.26 in 2013,
easily the highest in the majors.

Hughes, 27, spent seven years with the New York Yankees
before hitting the free-agent market this offseason. In 182 career games in
Yankee pinstripes, he had a 56-50 record with a 4.54 ERA. The 2013 season
marked a low point for Hughes, however, as he was just 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA in
30 games (29 starts).

Twins general manager Terry Ryan admitted that if Hughes had
better numbers in 2013, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t have landed with
Minnesota. The Twins are hoping his down year last season was an aberration.

“Ultimately, we think he’s got huge upside,” Ryan
said Thursday. “We’re willing to take a risk. This is a risky proposition
for both of us. He could have signed with a number of clubs, and he could have
signed a one-year deal to try to cash in. Ultimately, we’re trying to build and
we’re looking for more than just one year.

“We’ve got hopes that with a change of scenery, we’re
going to get him going in the right direction. We all want that.”

Hughes was on the Twins’ radar back in 2004 when they had
three picks in the first 25 selections of the first round of the Major League
Baseball draft. After taking third baseman Trevor Plouffe at No. 20 overall,
Minnesota then had a chance to nab Hughes at No. 22. The Twins took hometown
pitcher Glen Perkins instead, and Hughes went one pick later to the Yankees at
23.

Then there were the trade rumors that linked the Twins and
Hughes after the 2007 season when Minnesota was looking to deal ace left-hander
Johan Santana. Hughes was mentioned as a possible piece of a trade that would
have sent Santana to the Yankees. Instead, the Twins dealt their ace to the
Mets while Hughes remained in New York.

Six years later, Hughes is finally wearing the Twins uniform
he nearly wore on two separate occasions over the past decade.

“I tried to keep away from those things as much as I
can and focus on pitching,” Hughes said of the trade rumors. “I’m a
firm believer that everything happens for a reason. It wasn’t right in 2004. It
wasn’t right in 2008. I think it’s going to be right in 2014.

Throughout his career, Hughes’ durability has been a bit of
an issue. He pitched in just eight games for the Yankees in 2008 and had
another injury-shortened season in 2011 when he made just 14 starts with three
relief appearances. He’s topped 180 innings just once, when he reached 191 ⅓
innings in 2012.

Hughes’ back has been the biggest source of injury woes over
the years, but he said Thursday that he doesn’t believe it will be a hindrance
in 2014.

“It’s been a small issue dating back to 2005,
2006,” Hughes said. “I’ve gotten smarter with my workouts and
maintaining my health and back and everything like that. I believe it will not
be an issue going forward.”

After Hughes was announced Thursday, he was given a No. 45
Twins jersey by Ryan. With the Yankees, Hughes wore No. 65 since No. 45 — his
high school number during his days at Foothill High School in Santa Ana, Calif.
— was taken by former Twins pitcher Carl Pavano. Current Minnesota first base
coach Scott Ullger wore No. 45 before this year, and Hughes said he’ll work
something out with Ullger this spring in exchange for giving up the number.

He’ll be wearing a new number in 2014, and Hughes will also
be away from the intense scrutiny that comes from playing in New York. He’s
moving to a more pitcher-friendly ballpark than Yankee Stadium, and he noted
that he’s enjoyed pitching at Target Field over the last few years.

Hughes also enters an unfamiliar situation that he didn’t experience
with the Yankees: a team coming off three straight seasons of more than 90
losses. Yet as Minnesota looks to get back on track — with the help of a
revamped starting rotation — the Twins hope Hughes can be a key part of the
puzzle.

“The fact that the organization wanted to bring me in
not just for one year but to be a part of something certainly played a
role,” Hughes said. “The struggles that took place on the mound last
year, I’m happy to come in here along with Ricky and see if we can improve on
some of those things and take this team where we believe it belongs.”

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter