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Yankees banking on Hughes improvement

Yankees' pitcher Phil Hughes during Spring Training. (Feb.

Yankees' pitcher Phil Hughes during Spring Training. (Feb. 22, 2012) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

TAMPA, Fla.

What the Yankees gave up in Jesus Montero is more than just a potential long-term elite bat, perhaps even a catcher with that hitting prowess. In its one-year plan for 2012, the club surrendered its most likely candidate for internal upgrade.

The Yankees' offense would improve, team officials reasoned, because Montero surely would put up better numbers than Jorge Posada did in 2011.

Think of Michael Pineda, who has significant upside, as a value replacement for Montero. Think of free-agent righthander Hiroki Kuroda as the man who can fill the value void left by last year's Bartolo Colon resurgence.

So we're left once again with this query: Given how many Yankees performed so well last year, whose stock is most likely to rise so that others' can fall without serious consequences?

If you're not banking on an Alex Rodriguez's fountain of youth discovery, then your bet should be Phil Hughes.

"I think for any athlete, you're just trying to get better every single day," Hughes said yesterday at Steinbrenner Field. "Nobody knows what their cap is. Scouts, front office and fans try to put that ceiling potential on somebody. I think it's up to the player, the individual, to strive to reach that."

In the last few weeks, since the Pineda trade and Kuroda signing, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has touted Hughes as a future front-end starting pitcher -- which Hughes was for the first half of 2010, making the American League All-Star team.

Some perspective: Hughes is a great candidate for improvement because he was so darn awful last year. He put up a gawky 5.79 ERA in 17 games, totaling 74 2/3 innings, and struck out only 47 while walking 27. His line-drive percentage increased from 16.4 percent in 2010 to 23.2 percent last year.

His case of "dead arm" led to a horrendous April and, eventually, a stay on the disabled list that lasted nearly three months. That he showed up to last year's camp overweight made his offseason plan this year rather elementary.

"Going into the winter, we talked about getting in a pretty good conditioning program," Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "The first thing is to make sure the body is in shape, and I think that helps his arm."

Hughes reported to the Athletes Performance Institute in early November and spent 12 weeks there. He threw, strengthened his overall body and dieted, a full work-up. While Hughes will never be lithe, he appears slimmer and his pitches better. "His curveball looks more crisp," manager Joe Girardi said. "He has more arm speed. It just looks like he's throwing the ball better than he was at this time last year."

Now he has a job to win. The fifth starter's spot is essentially a competition between Hughes and Freddy Garcia. The veteran Garcia performed splendidly for the Yankees last year, and he has the savvy and physical conditioning to pull off a repeat. Yet if you compare ceilings, Hughes has the edge.

That's because of Hughes' fastball and curveball, pitches that have the potential to form the foundation of an above-average starting pitcher. The extra winter work gives Hughes hope that he can use his changeup and cut fastball, as well.

The righthander made his major-league debut on April 26, 2007. David Price was a college junior and Jeremy Lin a college freshman, and the iPhone had yet to be put on sale. Hughes has endured so many journeys since then -- "more downs than ups," he said -- including a 2008 demotion, 2009 success as Mariano Rivera's setup man, the 2010 roller coaster and last year's drama. While it feels like he's a veteran, he has only 443 2/3 major-league innings on his resume.

"I try not to look back on that stuff too much," Hughes said. "There are some things I learned from in there, but at the same time, I'm trying to make sure I can right the ship, make things good from here on out. That's my biggest purpose."

It's pretty big for the Yankees, too, as they hope their prodigal prospect can rise once more.

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