Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Cut by Yankees, Phil Hughes Stirs AAA Scranton

Pennsylvania baseball fans have been energized by the anticipated arrival of Yankees top prospect Phil Hughes, who will be added to the AAA Scranton-Wilkes Barre roster after his being cut at the major league camp in Tampa. Hughes is now scheduled for two more weeks of activity at the team's nearby minor league complex.

Hughes will be given more time to refine his technique, especially to polish a changeup to complement his 96-mph fastball and nose-to-toe curve. Then it's off to Scranton for an April 5 opening day start against AAA Norfolk, an Orioles affiliate.

"Ticket sales have been going through the roof," said team spokesman Mike Cummings. "It's unbelievable."

Fans have been motivated not only because of the 20-year-old Hughes but because this will be the franchise's maiden season as AAA affiliate of the Yankees, which moved from Columbus to Scranton after the Phillies vacated to move to a new stadium at nearby Allentown, Pa.

Advanced ticket sales have soared since the fans learned of Hughes' and the Yankees arrival, already exceeding last year's more than 376,000 total gate. At the current pace, another 250,000 tickets likely will be sold by the end of the season, a record.

Hughes projects as a top-of-the-rotation starter, likely to become the face of the Yankees over the coming decade. His promotion to New York could come as soon as June 1, when he will likely take the place of the No. 5 starter, who might be Jeff Karstens or Kei Igawa, either one of whom could be moved to the bullpen.

Karstens has been the surprise of camp in the early going as he is 2-0 with five strikeouts over five innings while giving up no runs, no walks and just four hits for an ERA of 0.00. Though his skills set is limited by a fastball topping no more than 90 mph, Karstens has outstanding control.

Igawa meanwhile -- who was initially signed as strictly a starter -- is being evaluated to fill a need for a lefty longman in the bullpen. Igawa has left a number of pitches up in the zone, causing his ERA to burgeon to 9.00, though he has seven strikeouts in just four innings.

Carl Pavano is also in the mix for the No. 5 rotation spot, but is the subject of confidential trade talks with the Colorado Rockies and perhaps other teams and is likely to be moved.