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Spring training was nearing its completion back in 2019 when Brandon Hughes was summoned to the field coordinator office at the Chicago Cubs’ complex in Mesa, Arizona. Hughes, then a minor-league outfielder, was greeted by Jaron Madison, the organization’s director of player development at the time.
Madison had bad news.
The Cubs didn’t see many opportunities for at-bats that season for Hughes and didn’t foresee him having a future with the club. At least not in the outfield. But they weren’t ready to give up on him entirely. So, Madison gave him two choices ...
Hughes could either continue as an outfielder and be granted his release from the team.
Or he could immediately transition into being a pitcher.
“It was a hard decision," Hughes says now, "because I had just made some big switches."
Hughes hadn’t pitched since a brief stint as a two-way player in college. But after mulling over the options, he made one of the biggest and best decisions of his life. He’d become a pitcher again. It has paid off for Hughes, who has become one of the most surprisingly successful relievers in the entire organization. And he’s now a big leaguer, after being promoted by the Chicago Cubs Tuesday.
“We’re all pulling for him,” said Madison, who's now a special assistant to the Cubs president/general manager, Jed Hoyer.
How Brandon Hughes went from outfielder to pitcher
Hughes was excited for the 2019 season.
A 16th-round draft pick by the Cubs back in 2017, he had made some monumental changes to his swing and was hoping for a breakout season. He had already shown some promise, smacking 14 doubles and four homers in 110 games in Single-A in 2018. Then, over the offseason, he worked on not lunging toward the plate and quieting his movements in the batter's box. His exit velocity numbers had gone up. So had the average distance of the balls he was hitting.
“I thought I was making big strides to become a big-league hitter,” Hughes said.
But that all changed that spring, when Madison brought him into the office.
The Cubs had other bats in the system that had more promise than Hughes. They needed more experience, and they didn't see the same promise in Hughes' numbers that he did. But they did see another path to the big leagues for him. As a pitcher.
Hughes was a star pitcher in high school and pitched briefly at Michigan State before suffering a torn labrum for the second time in his career and undergoing surgery. The injury had forced him to give up pitching and focus on hitting and playing the outfield.
Madison said someone in their scouting department had recalled seeing Hughes pitch and had been impressed. Before signing any player, Madison said members of the organization will often talk about whether or not position players have the ability to pitch and if that’s a route to go before releasing them. After he was drafted, Hughes had told scout Shane Farrell he would be willing to pitch one day if needed.
Still, Hughes didn’t like the idea of giving up his role as an everyday player and thought he had what it took to get to the big leagues. Becoming a pitcher was almost a Hail Mary move. And Hughes would have to essentially start over in his minor-league progression.
“I do think he felt like he hadn’t had a true legitimate shot to show us what he could do as a hitter,” Madison said.
Madison had a soft spot in his heart for Hughes, and he told him the Cubs would help him find another job if he asked to be released. Madison gave Hughes some time to think it over. Hughes went home and called his agent, his mom, Kim, and Skylar Meade, his pitching coach at Michigan State. He got something to eat with Farrell and talked it over.
"I could just tell the shock in his voice," Kim said.
Meade urged Hughes, a left-hander, to give it a try. So, later that day, Hughes went back to the Cubs' facility and told Madison he wanted to pitch.
Hughes becomes an Iowa Cubs success story on the mound
The transition began immediately.
The Cubs eased Hughes into pitching with light throwing to build up his arm strength. Even though Hughes had experience on the hill, he was far from ready to become a pitcher right away. He got his first pitching glove from teammate Bryan Hudson. He traded a bat to Justin Steele for his second glove.
When Hughes got in a bullpen for the first few times, it was light throwing at 60-70%. The goal was to get a feel for the mound and his movements. After about eight bullpen sessions, Hughes faced live hitters for the first time. The first pitch he threw came in at 93 miles per hour.
"I was like, 'Wow, let's go,'" Hughes said.
Hughes had the raw stuff — the fastball, a curveball and a changeup — to become a successful pitcher. But there was work to be done. The Cubs had him ditch his curveball and pick up a slider. He also adjusted his grip on the changeup. It all worked.
During his first season as a pitcher, Hughes went a combined 2-2 with a 3.31 ERA and 42 strikeouts across 32.2 innings for three different levels in 2019. When the Minor League Baseball season was canceled in 2020 because of COVID-19, Hughes tinkered with his mechanics. It led to a jump in his fastball velocity.
"I used to lift my arm real early," Hughes said. "My lower half really wouldn't do anything. So, now my lower half, it does a little bit more than it used to. And I keep my hand down a little bit longer."
The changes have led to even more success for Hughes, who has had his best season yet. During five games in Double-A this season, Hughes didn't allow an earned run, tossing 6.1 scoreless innings. It earned him his first promotion to Triple-A, where he was just as dominant, going 1-0 with 12 strikeouts over 10.1 innings and never giving up an earned run for the Iowa Cubs.
"It feels a little surreal," Hughes said. "I don't really know how to put it into words."
Hughes reached another big milestone this week when he earned his first big-league promotion. Madison said he's kept close tabs on how Hughes. He can't help but smile and think back to that day in 2019 when he sees Hughes has another good outing.
It's hard for Hughes to comprehend as well. He said he's thought back to the conversation he had with Farrell and Madison. When Hughes told Farrell he'd be willing to pitch some day, he figured it would never come to that. All Hughes wanted was a foot in the door at the time. He thought that was the answer that Farrell wanted to hear.
When Hughes got the news of his MLB promotion late Monday night, he called his mom and woke her up.
"It was just unbelievable," Kim said. "It really was. Like, am I hearing what I'm hearing? He was just so excited."
Tommy Birch, the Register's sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He's the 2018 and 2020 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8468. Follow him on Twitter @TommyBirch.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: How new Chicago Cubs pitcher Brandon Hughes got his MLB shot