After missing the entire 2006 season, the 25-year-old Royals farmhand produced a healthy, and more importantly, productive year on the mound for the Double-A Wichita Wranglers. He translated that success to the Arizona Fall League, which culminated in fans voting him the AFL Pitcher of the Year on Tuesday.
Hughes went 1-0 with a 2.45 ERA in six starts for the Surprise Rafters, holding opposing hitters to a .208 batting average with a 17-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. One of the highlights of his fall season came in a win over Scottsdale on Oct. 15, when he retired all 12 batters he faced.
His performance on the mound also helped the Rafters, who fell to the Phoenix Desert Dogs in the AFL Championship, to a West Division title.
He defeated a field that included teammate Matt Harrison, Jake Arrieta, Nick Blackburn and Bob McCrory of Phoenix, Nick Pereira and Max Scherzer of Scottsdale, Mitch Boggs (Mesa), Michael Nix (Peoria Javelinas) and Joe Savery (Peoria Saguaros).
"I feel very proud and blessed that the fans gave me this honor," said Hughes, an 11th-round pick in the 2003 Draft. "I worked hard to get back on the mound, and it's very rewarding not only to be able to pitch, but to pitch successfully and help my team win."
The Royals left-hander experienced immediate success in the Arizona League in 2003 after going 5-2 with a 2.84 ERA in 11 appearances and six starts. He followed with a stronger campaign in 2004, compiling a 9-7 record and 2.13 ERA in stints with Class A Burlington and Class A Advanced Wilmington.
Hughes enjoyed a fast start in 2005 with Class A Advanced High Desert before struggling for the first time. After three straight quality starts to open the season, the 5-foot-10 lefty made it to the fifth inning just once in his next five starts. After throwing a seven-inning two-hitter on May 15, Hughes would allow at least four runs in nine of his next 10 appearances. His season ended in July, and he underwent Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ligament in his elbow.
"A lot of guys will say they felt stronger coming back from that surgery," Hughes said. "But to me, it wasn't so much arm strength as it was the increase in stamina that I received from it. It used to be that I would start to get tired at 70 pitches and my pitches lose effectiveness. But now, I feel like my stuff is just as crisp at 80 or 90 pitches as it was at 10 or 20 pitches.
"As a finesse pitcher who uses control to succeed, it's important that I don't overthrow and miss location. My arm is still there for me later, and that's why I was able to pitch as well as I did this season."
Using a primary arsenal of a fastball and changeup, Hughes went 6-2 with a 3.08 ERA in 25 games and 16 starts for Wichita. In his final 12 games, 11 of which were starts, he went 5-0 with a 2.48 ERA and finished the season with a streak of 14 scoreless frames.
"Changing speeds and throwing first-pitch strikes led to success," he said. "My pitching coach in Wichita, Larry Carter, saw that I was trying to be too perfect with pitches, especially later in ballgames. He forced me to keep throwing strikes, to trust that I could throw strikes with either pitch. This season more than any other, my heater and change were there. I could move them corner to corner, up and down, and kept a lot of hitters off balance."
Hughes figures to start the season with Triple-A Omaha, and most scouts project him as a No. 5 starter or middle reliever. With a fastball that sits 88-91 mph and a changeup that induced more ground-ball outs than any year of his career, he could make an appearance in the Majors sooner rather than later.
"I know I've still got work to do with my curveball and slider, but I feel like I'm moving forward in the right place. I've talked to guys on the Rafters that played in Triple-A last year, and hearing their stories makes me eager to face the challenges at that level. I can't wait to get back out there."
Shane Figueroa is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.