Hughes represents Yankees' new direction

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- It isn't often in life that we can see the future. But the New York Yankees can.

And its name is Phil (Don't Call Me Philip) Hughes.

But not just because Baseball America ranked this 20-year-old buzz-master as the No. 2 pitching prospect in the whole sport, behind only Daisuke Matsuzaka.

And not just because a bunch of Yankees legends have been tossing around a torrent of "young Rocket" Roger Clemens comparisons all spring.

And not just because his minor league career has been so spectacular (21-7, 2.13 ERA, only 150 hits in 237 1/3 innings).

None of that, to be honest, is the big news here. The big news is that, for maybe the first time in the Emperor Steinbrenner era, it's finally safe to sit back in spring training, watch a sensational Yankees pitching prospect do his thing and not pose what used to be an automatic question:

What team are they going to trade him to?

Asked Tuesday, on an afternoon when Hughes spun two shutout innings against Cleveland, whether Hughes is a sign that those days -- the not-so-good-old trade-'em-all-away days -- are over, GM Brian Cashman replied, succinctly: "Yes."

Phil Hughes, you see, is the symbol of a staggering new development in this sport: The Yankees are trying to be a baseball team again.

As opposed to the universe's most expensive A-Plus Rental Center.

Not that it wasn't fun running the payroll up to $220 million, having a pitching staff that made more than the entire AL Central and cornering the market on all living multi-Cy Young Award winners. But the Yankees finally have caught on to something:

Bringing in those gazillion-dollar, superstud hired guns hasn't worked so well.

But those Chien-Ming Wangs and Robinson Canos and Melky Cabreras -- who must have slipped into town while everybody was busy watching the A-Rod and Randy Johnson news conferences -- all seemed to manage just fine. And the Yankees finally have concluded that that might not have been an accident.

"Wang and Cano and Cabrera all basically came up, and the expectation from the press wasn't there to impede their efforts," Cashman said. "And so, all of a sudden, before you know it, you have a guy [Wang] who finished second in the Cy Young award voting. And you have a guy [Cano] who made the All-Star team.

"And it's like wow, it just happened so quietly and quickly -- versus the other way, where you have some big press conference for some massive free-agent signing or trade in the winter, and they're supposed to be the reason that you're going to win the next five World Series in a row. And then they're getting booed for going 0-for-4, or having back-to-back bad pitching outings. It's almost like the cards are stacked against you that way. So this is a better way to do it -- and certainly a cheaper way -- if you get the right talent."

Well, if there's one thing they all seem to agree on, it's that Hughes is exactly the right talent.

He's 6-foot-5, 220 pounds. He launches baseballs with a smooth, compact delivery that has drawn comparisons to Clemens and Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina. And his four-pitch repertoire is so dominating that he turned the entire Eastern League into a collection of .179 hitters last year.

So Hughes is shaping up as the centerpiece of Cashman's new, welcome-to-the-21st-century blueprint for the Yankees. Why buy an ace down at the old Mercenary Mart for 100 million bucks when you can grow your own?

But before we hand him his first Cy Young trophy, let's remember something:

He's only 20.

He's younger than Tyler Hansbrough and Acie Law IV and Darryl Strawberry Jr. He's so young, he thinks of the wild card as a baseball phenomenon that has been around most of his life.

So even if Hughes already knows he won't be allowed to make this team out of spring training, he also knows -- because everyone knows -- that it won't be long. Which means the biggest question most people will have about him isn't whether he's talented enough to pitch for the Yankees.

No, the biggest question is whether he's mature enough to handle the most turbocharged universe in baseball.

Amazingly, everyone who knows him has no doubt whatsoever that he has the maturity.

"His age, to me, is irrelevant," said his agent, Nez Balelo. "He could pass for 25 years old. You could have a legitimate conversation with him about business. Or you could have a legitimate conversation with him about the game. He could sit down with Andy Pettitte or Mike Mussina and have a conversation about how to set up hitters. You can see this guy's maturity level. He doesn't act like a guy who's 20."

"It's really unusual to see a guy that young who handles himself the way he does," said 32-year-old catcher Jason Brown, who caught Hughes in Trenton last year. "He's not like a normal 20-year-old. I know, looking back, how I was when I was 20. And man, it was nothing even close."

"I'd rather be in a situation like the Yankees, where there's all this attention and media coverage. Some people think it's added pressure. But I just try and enjoy it."
-- Phil Hughes

But people have been saying stuff like this about Hughes since he was 17. Balelo tells a story about the day in 2004, when the Yankees invited Hughes -- their new No. 1 draft pick, out of Santa Ana, Calif. -- to meet them on a trip to Dodger Stadium.

They gave him a uniform, then marched him out to the bullpen before a game to throw for Joe Torre and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.

When a group of fans around the bullpen began hooting at him, Stottlemyre walked over to Hughes and asked: "Is all the yelling bothering you?"

"I don't even know what you're talking about," Hughes replied.

"And he really didn't," Balelo said. "He was in such a zone. And he's been that way his whole career."

We've seen enough players get overwhelmed by New York to know it isn't for everybody (not mentioning the names of any 6-foot-10 left-handers here). But it doesn't seem to faze Hughes, even though he grew up nearly 3,000 miles away.

"I'd rather be in a situation like the Yankees," he said, "where there's all this attention and media coverage. Some people think it's added pressure. But I just try and enjoy it."

If there's one word that describes his demeanor, he said, it's "calm." He gets that from his dad, Phil Sr., a retired Naval officer and "the most unrattled guy you'll ever meet." It's a quality, Hughes said, that "has really helped me a lot."

"I'll get in situations sometimes where I'll get a little bit rattled," he said. "But it never really snowballs. I always have the ability to slow down and take everything back to the basics. And that's definitely something I'm thankful to have."

We wish him luck maintaining that calm when it's September in Fenway, and Big Papi is standing 60 feet away, and the entire fate of Yankees-Red Sox civilization rests on his next pitch. But if you review Hughes' minor league career, it's obvious nothing has discombobulated him yet.

His highest ERA at any stop was 2.27 (in the Florida State League). He has averaged at least one strikeout per inning at every level and at least four times as many strikeouts as walks at every level. And he never has allowed a baserunner per inning anywhere.

So Torre says the Yankees would like to see Hughes experience a little failure someplace before they beam him into the Bronx. But they're running out of places he could experience that failure before the big leagues.

The closest Hughes thinks he has come to tasting any negativity was last year in spring training, when the Yankees ran him into a couple of big league exhibition games at age 19, "and I didn't do well at all, and it was a big shock to me."

But he reacted exactly the way the Yankees hoped he would -- by realizing he couldn't get by with the fastball-curve combo he'd been using to cruise through Class A ball. So he dedicated his summer to mixing in his slider and change, and really pitching. And he has an Eastern League ERA title to show for it.

So by the time Hughes rolled into his second big league camp, he was almost as big a story as the Jeter/A-Rod No More Sleepovers Saga. If the GM was holding out any hope he could just sneak this guy into the big leagues some month with no pressure or expectations, well, he knows now there's no shot of that.

"Yeah, his [expectations] now are starting to get overblown," Cashman said. "For instance, the day last week he pitched a batting practice and he wound up on the back pages being compared to Roger Clemens. That's probably not healthy."

But one guy who isn't worried is Yankees scouting director Damon Oppenheimer. There has been so much focus on Hughes for so long already, Oppenheimer says, "It was a more gradual thing for him to get used to. It's not happening all at once."

And the mere prospect of being a Yankee -- so foreboding for some people -- isn't as intimidating for a guy like this, who has known nothing but being a Yankee, he says.

"You can be sitting there in Tampa, getting ready to start up a workout, and in walks George Steinbrenner," Oppenheimer said. "So I don't know if there's the same pressure to being a Yankee when you grow up with the expectation of doing things like a Yankee."

Well, if it means anything, Hughes says he wouldn't want any other kind of expectation. He likes the idea of looking around the clubhouse at "eight or nine future Hall of Famers." He likes the idea that, on the day he was drafted, he had to do a conference call "with about 20 newspapers." He's excited by the thought of having "to make that big pitch in front of 50,000 people."

And if he's as sincere about that as he sounds, he is on the cusp of doing something no Yankees No. 1 draft pick has done in 38 years -- actually winning a game for the Yankees. (Bill Burbach, the Yankees' top pick in the first-ever draft in 1965, went 6-8 lifetime.)

"Hopefully," Hughes said, "I can wipe that stat out. Soon."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.