Future still bright for Hughes, Buchholz

November, 6, 2008

After missing a couple of weeks with a fingernail problem, Phil Hughes bounced back with his best start in a long time earlier this week at the AFL.

Unfortunately, I was at a different game at the time checking out a pitcher whom I needed to bear down on, but reports from other scouts indicated that Hughes' stuff was very good. After multiple outings earlier in the Fall League in which he was struggling to get over 91 mph, he was throwing a consistent 92 to 94, touching 95 once in a five-inning stint in which he allowed just one hit and no walks while striking out eight.

Phil HughesJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesPhil Hughes is working his way back to fantasy relevance after an injury-plagued 2008 campaign.
Hughes' vaunted curveball was on, as he was able to throw it for strikes to both sides of the plate. His fastball command was "as good as it's been all year," in the words of another scout. His changeup is still very much a work in progress, but this was an encouraging outing, considering the way he had looked last month. He's still not the ace he's been hyped to be, but being a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter is not bad at all.

• With Theo Epstein in attendance, Clay Buchholz struggled in his final AFL outing, giving up five hits and four walks as he failed to get out of the fourth inning. Buchholz dazzled with his raw stuff in his five outings here but struggled at times with location and overall consistency. To be fair, he was throwing a lot more fastballs than usual because he was down here to work on fastball command, and eventually hitters can figure out you're using your secondary stuff less. I'm still a big believer in Buchholz for 2009, and think he can have a nice bounceback season if he earns a rotation slot.

• Bud Norris is a 23-year-old right-hander in the Astros organization who was drafted in the sixth round in 2006. He missed two months of this season with an elbow injury but has been dazzling with his fastball-slider combination here.

Norris has been a starter virtually his entire pro career, including 19 outings at Double-A this year, sporting a 4.05 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 80 innings. However, he's been turning heads in relief work, and he might be best suited as a late-inning power reliever or closer. Norris picks up a lot of velocity out of the 'pen, consistently working at 95 to 97 mph with late movement. He couples it with a power high-80s breaking ball, a pitch that he throws like a curve but that acts more like a late-breaking slider. His changeup is below average, a straight pitch in the mid-80s that he uses on a limited basis.

His build and repertoire have drawn some comparisons to Ben Sheets, as they are both relatively short right-handers with two power pitches and not much else, but Norris' command is far behind Sheets' at this point. If you're going to be a starter with just two pitches in the big leagues, you need to have great command of both of them. Regardless of his role, Norris' live arm is one to watch, and I think he has a chance eventually to close games in the big leagues if the Astros decide starting is not for him.



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