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The continued disappointment of Phil Hughes

Phil Hughes has struggled mightily since his career year in 2014, and there’s more bad news now that his season is likely over due to the return of his thoracic outlet syndrome issues.

Minnesota Twins v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

It’s been a bit of a roller coaster for the Twins and Phil Hughes. After spending a tumultuous seven years in New York as a member of the Yankees, the Twins signed Hughes to a 3-year, $24 million contract. Though it was panned by many because Hughes had been an inconsistent starting pitcher up to that point, it really wasn’t an outrageous contract for a guy that was meant to simply eat innings for a disastrous pitching staff.

What the Twins received in Hughes’ first year was beyond what anyone could have imagined. His 3.52 ERA actually underrated him as he ceased to walk hitters, fixed his home run problem, and suddenly took the reins as the ace of the rotation. Sensing something special, Terry Ryan felt the need to tear up Hughes’ original contract and rewarded him with a 5-year, $58 million contract.

Here’s the thing: as contract extensions often were in Twins Territory, it was an awful decision. Ryan evidently never learned from the mistakes of keeping Ryan Doumit, Nick Blackburn, Mike Pelfrey, and Matt Capps around longer than their initial pacts demanded. For as good as Hughes was in 2014, there were many red flags that suggested that while he was better, he wouldn’t be as good again. Hughes didn’t actually fix his home run problem, he just got lucky as his flyball rate stayed near his career average. He wasn’t throwing any harder than when he was in New York. The only way Hughes improved without the aid of luck was by refusing to hand out free passes to hitters anymore. Anyone with a decent knowledge of pitching analytics would have seen that Hughes would be a good, not great pitcher over the next couple years, but Ryan panicked and locked up Hughes until 2019 to keep him from ever seeing free agency.

Much like the Twins pitching staff for the past half-decade, Hughes’ career since that contract extension has been mind-numbingly awful.

His first year after the extension (2015), Hughes regressed back into the pitcher I think we should have expected from the very beginning. His home run problem returned, he lost 1 12 MPH from his fastball, and his strikeout rate cratered from league average to among the worst for starting pitchers. He still mustered a 4.40 ERA over 155 13 innings though, so although the season was a clear disappointment, he wasn’t necessarily bad.

However, the downward slide has accelerated since then. In 2016, Hughes’ elite control fell to being simply above average. Strikeouts and home runs were once again a problem, and eventually he was put on the disabled list with what was eventually diagnosed as thoracic outlet syndrome (interestingly, he apparently had TOC symptoms back in 2011). When he was DL’d midseason, Hughes was carrying a 5.95 ERA and was averaging about 5 12 innings per start.

After losing a rib in an effort to alleviate the numbness in his hand, there was hope that Hughes might be able to return to his form from 2015 but that clearly did not happen. This year was just as bad as last, and after a 15-day DL stint and a brief return as a relief pitcher, Hughes is back on the 60-day DL and facing yet another TOC surgery. While some pitchers have successfully continued their careers after TOC (Chris Young, Clayton Richard, Mike Foltynewicz, Jaime Garcia, Josh Beckett), it seems that Hughes may be destined to join the likes of Chris Carpenter, Matt Harrison, Luke Hochevar, and Shaun Marcum instead.

Now might be a bad time to remind you that the Twins still owe Hughes $26.4 million over the next two years. I have no idea how the Twins move forward from here. He’s clearly untradeable, so that’s out. Admitting that Hughes is a sunk cost and designating him for assignment is a possibility, but that’s a lot of money for the Twins to eat. I’m certain they will just plan for next year and hope that he can recoup some value, even as a reliever. There could also be some hope that he’ll retire, but Hughes doesn’t have much incentive to just walk away from over $25 million. There is no good outcome here for both parties, unfortunately, and now it appears that all we can do is wait for next year to see what the verdict will be.