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A Call For Arms

June 7, 2004
By George King

NEW YORK--When George Steinbrenner gathered his minor league people together in March, the Boss made it clear he wasn't pleased with the state of the Yankees' system. He acknowledged talent had been used in trades for Chuck Knoblauch, Aaron Boone and Jeff Weaver. Still, the lack of big leaguers coming from within the system--especially pitchers--bothered Steinbrenner.

So, it wasn't a surprise when the Yankees selected eight pitchers in their first 12 picks during the first day of the 2004 draft.

"It was an area in the organization we had to strengthen,'' VP of baseball operations Mark Newman said. "We hope that does it.''

So, before he even signed a Yankee contract, Phillip Hughes was under pressure to help turn around the sagging fortunes of a Yankee farm system. Hughes, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound righthander from Foothill High School in Santa Ana, Ca., was plucked in the first round (23rd overall).

And even though Hughes will be just 18 on June 24, the Yankees don't believe he should be thought off as a young pitcher.

"It's always a legitimate debate,'' Newman said of the decision to use a first-round pick on a high school pitcher, something the Yankees have done eight times since the draft was introduced in 1965. "In this case, he is a refined pitcher and a mature pitcher.''

Newman even said that while Hughes ranked third among Yankees picks in regards to being big league ready, behind Brett Smith, the 42nd pick in the draft out of UC Irvine, and Jeffrey Marquez, the 41st pick out of Sacramento City College. According to Newman, Hughes isn't far behind the college guys in his development.

"I don't think you would classify him as a raw prospect,'' Newman said of Hughes.

Hughes throws a 93-95 mph fastball, a changeup and a slider. He's also been working on adding a curveball.

That arsenal was enough to pile up eye-popping 9-1, 0.69 numbers at Foothill High in Santa Ana, Calif., while playing in a very difficult high school league. In 61 innings pitched, Hughes allowed 41 hits, fanned 83 and issued just three walks. He established a school record with 23 career wins.

"I owe a lot to my pitching coach at Foothill High (Iran Novick),'' said Hughes, who inked a letter of intent with Santa Clara University but doesn't expect much trouble agreeing to terms with the Yankees. "He always told me about attacking hitters inside. To get guys out you have to throw strikes and that's what I have always done.''

In front of Marquez and Smith, the Yankees took high school catcher Jon Poterson with a sandwich pick they received for losing Andy Pettitte. Then it was Marquez and Smith, a 6-foot-5, 220-pounder Newman said was the pick who is closest to the big leagues.

"He has a big ceiling and a plus breaking ball,'' Newman said.

While admitting the system isn't want it used to be, Newman believes it's on the upswing.

"We are not where we were four years ago when we were as good as anybody else,'' Newman said. "We have to replenish the pitching in our system. We are better than we were 12 months ago but we still have got work to do. We are not where we want to be yet.''

YANKEE DOODLES

The last high school pitcher the Yankees took in the first round was Matt Drews in 1993. Two years earlier they selected lefty Brien Taylor with the top pick in the draft.

Taking high school players with the top two picks is risky business because they have the option of going to college. However, Newman believes that won't happen with Hughes and Poterson.

"Our area scouts did a good job and told us we can sign these guys,'' Newman said. "They said these guys want to be Yankees.''

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