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.”

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