NEW YORK -- Philip Hughes, the big right-hander with a sizzling fastball and knee-buckling curve, is doing his best to ignore any hype of being the top pitching prospect in the Yankees' farm system.

Yankee Stadium may very well be in his future, but right now, the 20-year-old Hughes is salivating only at the prospect of finally breaking out of winter workouts and staring down Grapefruit League hitters.

"I look at it as an opportunity to show the Yankees what I can do," Hughes said in a telephone interview. "Hopefully, they like what they see. I may get a shot to make the team, and I may not. I'm always thinking of going in there with the intention of doing my best and making the decisions a little bit tougher for them."

The Yankees' first-round selection (23rd overall) in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, Hughes has established himself as one of baseball's best Minor League pitching prospects. The Santa Ana, Calif., product spent most of last season at Double-A Trenton, posting a 10-3 record and 2.25 ERA in 21 starts.

Boasting a fastball that regularly clocks in the mid-90s, a curveball that was resurrected after being scrapped from Hughes' high school arsenal, plus a developing changeup, Hughes struck out 138 batters in 116 Eastern League innings, allowing 73 hits and walking 32.

The curveball was a major factor in Hughes' success. When Hughes' velocity jumped in his late teens, the effectiveness of his curve diminished.

Hughes had shelved the hook in favor of a slider, but at the urging of Minor League pitching coordinator Nardi Conteras, Hughes spent much of last season redeveloping his curveball into his strikeout pitch -- first at Class A Tampa in the Florida State League, then fine-tuning at Trenton.

The pitch is actually more of a knuckle-curve, an offering that has been effective for Yankees starter Mike Mussina. The veteran right-hander spent time around Hughes last spring, even offering some tweaks on Hughes' version, and Mussina recently issued a strong endorsement for Hughes' future.

"He's got ability, he's got skill, and he's got an idea," Mussina said. "He had a good year last year. I don't know if they should be throwing him into the fire at 20 or 21 years old, but he's not very far away."

Hughes said last season gave him a low-pressure experience of what camp would be like. In one February workout, he buzzed a mid-90s heater past Alex Rodriguez, prompting the reigning AL MVP to ask a club executive, "Who the [heck] is that guy?"

This year, his teammates will know the kid wearing No. 65. Hughes enters the spring as a dark-horse candidate for the back end of the Yankees' rotation, which has been tentatively filled out by Japanese import Kei Igawa and the oft-injured Carl Pavano.

The Yankees would prefer that Hughes begin the season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, taking the lead role in a powerhouse rotation. But that scenario is hardly a lock.

"Obviously, if you look at the [Major League] rotation now, there's not really a spot for me," Hughes said. "A lot of things can happen. I'm just going to go in and do my best. If a spot opens up and they want me to fill it, I will. If not, I'll take my time and go where they want me to go."

Mark Newman, the club's senior vice president of baseball operations, will not shoot down the possibility of Hughes making the team's Opening Day roster. But because of Hughes' value as a long-term asset, the Yankees are cautious not to jeopardize his future to satisfy a short-term need.

"I would never count someone of his ability out," Newman said. "I think the best-case scenario is to give him a little time at Triple-A. It's not beyond reasonable for him to make an impact sometime this year."


"[Hughes] had a month last year where he threw 80 percent fastball strikes. We've never had anybody do that. He went all year and didn't face a hitter with the bases loaded. All the performance indices we look at are off the charts."
-- Yankees vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman

Newman believes time is on the Yankees' side. Hughes -- who will not celebrate his 21st birthday until late June -- would just be entering his junior year of college, had he attended.

"He's probably the best young pitcher we've had in this organization since I've been here, both in terms of stuff and in terms of performance," said Newman, who joined the Yankees in 1989.

"[Hughes] had a month last year where he threw 80 percent fastball strikes. We've never had anybody do that. He went all year and didn't face a hitter with the bases loaded. All the performance indices we look at are off the charts."

Accordingly, the Yankees plan to increase Hughes' innings total this season to a ceiling of 180, no matter his level.

Newman cautioned that Major League innings could be more taxing emotionally than those compiled in the International League. Hughes, who pitched 152 innings last year including the playoffs, said he is ready for a higher workload.

"Midway last year, I was on pace for over 200 innings, and I didn't feel any fatigue going into the second half of the season," Hughes said. "I feel like I'm ready for a jump up in innings.

"A lot of the philosophy is that if you increase innings, that can lead to arm trouble, so I'm sure they're going to be cautious. I'm definitely looking forward to another full, healthy season. I'll pitch until they shut me down."

Through his relatively brief professional career, the roadmap of the Minor Leagues has become littered with coaches and scouts who rave about Hughes' makeup, maturity and moxie.

Hughes said he believes his grounded personality comes from his upbringing, when he was taught that any perceived advantages or benefits can disappear at any time. Accordingly, Hughes said he hasn't been the type to get in trouble or become involved in confrontations.

"I'm the same guy I've always been," Hughes said. "I just go out and pitch and do my thing every fifth day."

He describes his clubhouse goals as keeping his head down and getting to work. It's an ethic that, sooner or later, should deliver him to the Bronx.

"I think the door is open for me," Hughes said. "I've just got to go out and prove that I'm ready."