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Hughes healthy, champing at bit after 1st bullpen

Veteran righty has no restrictions following August surgery; eager to contribute to Twins' success
MLB.com @RhettBollinger

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- As the Twins made their surprising run to the American League Wild Card Game last year, all veteran right-hander Phil Hughes could do was watch as he suffered through another injury-riddled season capped by a second rib surgery to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome in August.

Hughes, 31, was undoubtedly Minnesota's ace in his first season with the club in 2014, posting a 3.52 ERA in 32 starts while setting the record for the best single-season strikeout-to-walk ratio in Major League history. But Hughes has struggled to stay healthy since then, posting a 5.04 ERA over the past three seasons. He hasn't pitched more than 60 innings since '15.

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- As the Twins made their surprising run to the American League Wild Card Game last year, all veteran right-hander Phil Hughes could do was watch as he suffered through another injury-riddled season capped by a second rib surgery to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome in August.

Hughes, 31, was undoubtedly Minnesota's ace in his first season with the club in 2014, posting a 3.52 ERA in 32 starts while setting the record for the best single-season strikeout-to-walk ratio in Major League history. But Hughes has struggled to stay healthy since then, posting a 5.04 ERA over the past three seasons. He hasn't pitched more than 60 innings since '15.

He was plagued by thoracic outlet syndrome during the last two seasons, causing him to feel numbness in his fingers and decreasing his velocity. Hughes feels healthy after this second operation, though, and will have no restrictions this spring as he tries to prove he's capable of being a much-needed boost to a rotation that lacks depth. He threw his first official bullpen session on the first day of workouts on Wednesday without any issues, but he knows it's just the first step of many this spring.

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"It feels good," Hughes said. "It's really early, so I'm cautiously optimistic about how I feel right now. It's nice to not have anything holding me back, and I can just go full bore from Day 1 and not feel like I'm behind or anything. So far I'm happy, but the games haven't begun yet so there are a lot of progressions to go."

Hughes was shut down from that surgery until the offseason, then he was able to participate in a normal throwing program that saw him throw off a mound three times before Wednesday. His velocity will be of great interest this spring, but he has yet to look at a radar gun and will get his first taste of throwing to hitters early next week once position players report.

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"We're trying to remain optimistic about what he can do and a role he can fill," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "He's got to be, I imagine, a little bit hungry to go out there and compete. He hasn't had a chance to do what he does very frequently over the last couple of years. It's not hard to see that we've got a need rotation-wise to fill some spots."

Hughes plans to throw in a new wrinkle in this season, going back to his slider he's mostly ditched since 2013. He's relied heavily on his cutter in recent years, and while that won't change too much, Hughes said he's open to making adjustments from new pitching coach Garvin Alston, who watched him throw on Sunday and Wednesday.

"I almost want to fast-forward Spring Training because I'm really excited. I just want to get going and be productive again," Hughes said. "As fun as it was last year to see the guys do well, selfishly, I want to be a big part of that. Prove that I can get back to that point. A lot of selfishness starts to come out when you're gone for two years. You want to get back and actually be productive and be a part of it. It's kind of where my mind's at right now."

Rhett Bollinger has covered the Twins for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @RhettBollinger and Facebook.

Minnesota Twins, Phil Hughes