Sunday, September 4, 2011

Who is Luke Hughes?

Hughes celebrates with Justin Morneau after hitting a home run off Justin Verlander

Signed out of Australia in July of 2002, Hughes came to the United States as an 18-year old the following year to start his career.  He spent his first two seasons in the Minnesota organization in short-season ball, with the GCL Twins and Elizabethton, respectively, and put up pretty good numbers.  In 2005 he moved up to full-season ball for the first time and the result was relatively disappointing.  His strikeout-to-walk ratio was worrisome, his OBP was unremarkable, and his decent power wasn't enough to make up for those weaknesses.  A 23-game cameo with Ft. Myers only heightened those red flags, as he tallied a pathetic .484 OPS there.

At this point, Hughes looked like the majority of minor leaguers--that is, a player destined to never play in the Majors.  And his full-season performance at Ft. Myers in 2006 did nothing to change that, as he once again demonstrated limited plate discipline and subsequently a limited ability to get on base.  His power numbers also suffered compared to what they were at the lower levels, and his OPS on the season was under .600.

Nonetheless, the Twins pushed him to Double-A the following season.  As it turned out, Hughes responded by playing the best baseball of his career, showing resurgent power and improving his walk rate.  It wasn't until after the 2008 season, though, when he finally got noticed as a prospect.  That's because he took another leap forward that year, posting an excellent .252 ISO and .415 wOBA in repeating Double-A, and playing in that year's Futures Game, before moving up to Triple-A for the end of the year.  A huge strikeout rate and a drop in his plate discipline at that level were concerning in his short stint there, but he also continued to show a good amount of pop.

For those reasons, he entered the 2009 season as a player who could potentially be in Minnesota at some point that season.  However, he started back at Double-A and regressed in most offensive categories.  At the same time, he was forced to move further down the defensive spectrum to third base, after starting his minor league career at shortstop and then playing second base for the majority of the previous seasons.  Upon moving up to Triple-A later in the season, however, he improved both on those numbers and on his performance at Triple-A in 2008.

He entered 2010 as a viable option for the big league club, but did not make the team out of Spring Training and began the season with Rochester.  Within a month, though, he was in Minnesota as a replacement for Nick Punto, who had to be put on the disabled list.  On April 28, he made his Major League debut and homered in his first plate appearance, the fifth Twin ever to do so.  He played the next day too, but was sent down days later on May 1, having made just 7 trips to the plate for Minnesota.  A sports hernia and groin injury he suffered at the beginning of June made it impossible for him to return to Minnesota that year.

Hughes again began 2011 in Rochester, but this time he was called up within a week, as Tsuyoshi Nishioka's broke his leg and needed to be replaced on the roster.  Hughes has spent the rest of the season bouncing between Triple-A and the Majors, at times displaying solid pop, but at other times looking lost at the plate and always looking like a marginal fielder.  Hughes has the potential to be pinch hitter and a backup infielder, but his defensive limitations prevent him from playing a premium position, and his offense isn't good enough for him to be considered a long-term starter at a less important position.

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