"I consider Pittsburgh family," Hughes said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon. "It was a wonderful opportunity, and I feel thankful for it."
With Hughes out of the picture, the Bucs have two remaining bullpen spots and four potential candidates: right-hander A.J. Schugel, lefties Wade LeBlanc and Tyler Webb (a Rule 5 Draft pick) and either Tyler Glasnow or Trevor Williams, whichever one doesn't make the rotation.
Drafted in 2006 and developed in the Pirates' system, Hughes spent the past six years pitching out of the Bucs' bullpen. With a heavy sinker and elite ground-ball rates, Hughes emerged as one of baseball's most underrated and reliable setup relievers in 2014-15 before struggling last season and this spring.
"It was a hard decision, maybe one of the hardest I've been involved in, for the man, the job he's done in the past, the man in the clubhouse, the Pirate and all those things combined," manager Clint Hurdle said.
After spending a month on the disabled list to begin the 2016 season, Hughes' ground-ball rate and overall numbers dipped, though he did rebound in the second half. With a lot of competition in camp, the 31-year-old needed to have a good Spring Training to crack the Pirates' Opening Day roster.
Instead, he struggled. Hughes allowed 15 runs (12 earned) on 16 hits and four walks in 9 1/3 innings.
The Pirates avoided arbitration with Hughes in January, signing him to a $2.825 million deal. By releasing him before Opening Day, the Bucs are only on the hook for 45 days' worth of his contract.
Hurdle said the move was made in the interest of putting together the best possible bullpen. Hughes, who has a Minor League option remaining, said he was told the Pirates wanted to go a "different way" with their bullpen.
"It was tough. It was emotional. I've been a Pirate since 2006," Hughes said. "It was sad in that moment. At the same time, I wanted to express that I was grateful for the opportunity to play here."
A genuine and generous person by nature, Hughes met reliever Daniel Hudson on the first day of camp and greeted him, enthusiastically, "Welcome aboard the Pirate ship!" After being informed of his release, Hughes said his goodbyes around the clubhouse and wished his teammates luck going forward.
Hughes was deeply involved in the Pittsburgh community, and his efforts were recognized when he was named the Pirates' nominee for the 2016 Roberto Clemente Award.
"I learned so many valuable life lessons in this organization -- not just on the field, but also off the field," Hughes said. "I met some people that really helped me shape my morals and characters. It's definitely been a wonderful journey with the Pirates."
Now, Hughes will head home to Texas and wait for a call from his agency, confident he still has something to offer another team.
"I feel like as a baseball player, that has to be your belief at all times. I don't stray from that," Hughes said. "I believe there's a lot of really, really good baseball in front of me, and I definitely believe I haven't found my best yet."