03/05/10 7:35 PM ET
Powerful Hughes hopes to cut down on K's
First baseman also learning the ins and outs of left field
By Brittany Ghiroli / MLB.com
A left-handed hitter, Hughes blasted a pair of two-run homers off Rays lefties Jason Cromer and Heath Phillips in the Grapefruit League opener on Wednesday afternoon, showcasing a power stroke that had manager Dave Trembley raving earlier in camp.
In his two at-bats on Thursday, Hughes struck out on six pitches. That small sample size aside, Hughes' first four at-bats are indicative of his past few years in the Minors. A former Rays prospect, Hughes was acquired as the player to be named in the deal that sent Gregg Zaun to Tampa Bay. The 26-year-old wields a powerful bat, but he is also a high-strikeout hitter, fanning a combined 149 times in 114 games between the Rays' Double-A and Triple-A teams.
"Two homers and two strikeouts, he was almost [always] like that with us last year," Charlie Montoyo, manager of the Triple-A Durham Bulls, said following Thursday's game. "He's hitting .500 [right now], but imagine if he could cut down on his strikeouts."
Selected by Tampa Bay in the eighth round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, Hughes -- like every Rays prospect -- was placed in a development program with an emphasis on improving plate efficiency.
"Our emphasis with Rhyne was improving his two-strike approach," Double-A Montgomery manager Billy Gardner said. "To be more contact-conscious and not trying to go up there and hack [with two strikes]. That's something he needed to be [doing]."
When Gardner first laid eyes on Hughes, in the Midwest League in 2006, the Biscuits skipper was far from impressed. The 22-year-old ended the season with Southwest Michigan with a .236 average and a .321 slugging percentage and seemed to lack the necessary fire to advance in the Minors. Though flashes of Hughes' hitting ability peeked through, Gardner remembers being turned off by the prospect's low-energy, laissez-faire approach.
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That all changed that winter, as Hughes underwent a rigorous offseason conditioning program designed to make him stronger and add bat speed. When he arrived in Montgomery toward the end of the 2007 season, he "was a completely different guy," said Gardner.
A hit pitch to the mouth sidelined Hughes for the last few weeks of '07, and by the following season, Gardner began to see the young hitter develop into a significant power threat.
"We started to see it when his swing opened up a little more, he was able to pull it a little more and really square up on the ball," Gardner said. "Those were some adjustments that he made, and to his credit, I think the key for him was improving his work ethic."
Hughes hit a career-high 14 homers with the Biscuits in '08, batting .268 with a .448 slugging percentage. He went yard 25 times across two levels and three Minor League teams last season, but his strikeout numbers continue to be a concern.
"I know that's something I might have to cut down on, and it's not a bad thing," Hughes said. "I know that in the long run, if I can cut down my strikeouts even by 20 percent, that will help my average more. And shoot, it will help the team more."
Hughes has been focused on making minor adjustments with two strikes at the plate but doesn't believe that an entire overhaul is necessary.
"If you think about it too much, it becomes a problem," he said. "I'm not going to change my whole approach. There's some things I'll have to do better, and again, I think it's pitch selection, not chasing some stuff."
Added Montoyo: "His strikeouts, he's got to cut down on that, that's the truth, but whenever he makes an adjustment on that, he's going to be real good."
The Orioles have been so impressed by Hughes that Trembley has asked him to start taking reps in left field, a position that would be more beneficial to the Major League club than Hughes' regular spot, first base.
"[Trembley] told me to try. To get some at-bats, I may have to play somewhere out there like [left field], and I was totally up for that," Hughes said. "I told him [I'd do] whatever helps the team, and it will help me also get to the big leagues [quicker]. That's the ultimate goal here.
"If I can be productive and help the team playing left field, then that's what I would like to be able to do."
Hughes played some left field at Pearl River Community College and has been getting in extra work with Minor League roving instructor Butch Davis and first-base coach John Shelby.
"I can tell he's played [some left field before]," Shelby said. "And it's not bad that he wants to do more work. I think he knows that in order to be in the big leagues, he's going to have to play different positions."
Hughes said that the biggest adjustment has been reading the ball off the bat, and he will often make sure to be in left field during the team's live batting practice to get a better feel of that vantage point.
"I've only been out there once, in the intrasquad game [on Monday]," Hughes said. "I had a lot of things happen then. Some good things, some bad things. But [the adjustments] are just kind of route running and knowing where to go."
And for that he is relying on his new teammates.
"I played next to [Jeff Salazar], I was talking to Matt Angle about a few things, just picking their brains a little bit," he said. "I talked to [Adam Jones] the other day. I told him, 'I'll be bothering you. I'll be trying not to, but I'll picking your brain a little bit.' "
Jones said that the first thing he told Hughes was to trust his instincts, which, according to Shelby, won't be a problem.
"He's got some pretty good reaction," Shelby said. "It's not like he's lost out there, he just needs more work."
And if Hughes' past is any indicator, working harder won't be a problem.
"He's where he's at today because he improved his work ethic," Gardner said. "What Rhyne's going to do is ... give it everything he's got. He's a very highly motivated, determined kid right now, and he wants to be a Major League player.
"He's one of those guys who can go home and look at himself in the mirror and say, 'I did everything I could today.' "
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.