Said manager Joe Girardi: "You watch him and he leads the groups in running. He just looks like an athlete, a thoroughbred and a leader."
After Hughes' debut season was interrupted by a pop of a different kind -- his left hamstring giving out in the middle of a no-hitter -- the 21-year-old Hughes has set out to keep only positive things on his plate in 2008.
Hughes confirms he's hitting the glove with more force than in his debut season, when he won five games for New York, plus one more in the playoffs. But more importantly, he has confidence that nothing else will go wrong.
"It's not so much the velocity," Hughes said. "It's really the fact that I've felt more comfortable and I've been able to trust my body. I don't have any inklings or thoughts in the back of my head that something will flare up again. I think that's the key, to trust all my pitches and finish everything."
If nothing else, Hughes should feel at home in Tampa. This offseason, Hughes reported regularly to the Yankees' training facility on Himes Avenue, even while general manager Brian Cashman was fielding calls from Twins counterpart Bill Smith, dabbling with a potential deal for Johan Santana.
You can still imagine how the Yankees would look with Santana atop their rotation, and it can be a tantalizing thought, even for fans ecstatic about the way New York's future lines up.
But it's not reality, and Hughes hopes that fairness can prevail over fantasy. Some may still judge his career as one of the guys the Yankees wouldn't trade for a two-time American League Cy Young Award winner.
"I think there are probably a few fans who will think that," Hughes said. "It really doesn't affect me at all, as much as people think it might. It's just something that's really not an issue for me. I don't understand the point of why they would [compare Hughes to Santana].
"We're such different pitchers and at different points in our careers. He's obviously done a lot over his career and he's one of the best in the game. I'm just trying to break into my career and be successful, not trying to be like anybody else."
Even as he attempts to carve his own identity, Hughes is receiving plenty of assistance. Mike Mussina suggested to a clubhouse manager early in Spring Training that Hughes' locker be moved to neighbor his, so the veteran could loop Hughes in with Ian Kennedy if any impromptu pitching discussions broke out.
Then, when Andy Pettitte reported to Tampa, he took it upon himself to walk Hughes, Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain through the same intense workouts Pettitte used to attack with Roger Clemens. Even with so much scrutiny upon the Rocket, his lifting and running regimen still draws admiration.
It helps, of course, that Hughes heeded the call for better fitness. Girardi let it be known that Spring Training '08 would not be a country club, and Hughes showed up ready to go. Spending weeks over at the Minor League complex under the supervision of pitching coach Dave Eiland have been paying dividends early.
"He's in great shape," Girardi said. "All the reports on him that I saw from when he was working down at Himes said he was different. He'd worked really hard.
"... He knows what to expect a little bit more going through."
That sort of personal experience served Hughes well during the Santana rumors. Holed up in a RV outside his parents' California home while remodeling work was taking place, Hughes had no access to cable television, which was probably a good thing.
Robinson Cano said that Melky Cabrera, also included in the Santana deal, was disturbed when Dominican Republic newspapers kept trumpeting a trade to Minnesota was close.
But out on the West Coast, when someone mentioned the Twins in an off-the-cuff remark, Hughes said he was able to keep his composure. That's just what the Yankees needed to hear.
"You learn to handle it," Hughes said. "My name has come up ever since I could be traded, and I've been either going here or going there, even when I was in A-ball. You just try and put it aside and concentrate on what you need to do.
"I know what I expect out of myself and what my goals are this year. There are no guarantees. You have to go out and earn every bit of what you want."