- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 6, 2012

TAMPA, FLA. (AP) - Joe Girardi rarely goes public with criticism of one of his players, so it was unusual Tuesday when the New York Yankees manager detailed his unhappiness with the physical condition of Phil Hughes last year.

Hughes became a dominant pitcher in 2010 when he went 18-8 and was picked for the AL All-star team, but he slipped to a 5-5 record in an injury filled 2011. Girardi suggested perhaps a sense of entitlement slipped in last year and made clear that Hughes is among four pitchers competing for three open slots in the Yankees‘ starting rotation.

“I think you can tell by the way he came into camp that there’s a little bit more of an edge,” Girardi said before Hughes was to make his first spring training appearance, against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Bradenton. “He worked extremely hard this winter. He was here a couple weeks early, throwing off the mound, doing sides. That’s not something we ask our players to do. We had a lot of people come in early, but he knows that there is competition, and nothing is going to be handed to you.”

Only CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda are assured of starting spots, with Hughes battling Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda and Freddy Garcia for the remaining three berths.

A laid-back 25-year-old from Orange County in California, Hughes has faced great expectations since the Yankees took him with the 24th pick of the 2004 amateur draft. When he came up to the majors in 2007, he had a no-hit bid through 6 1-3 innings at Texas in his second start, leaving with a pulled left hamstring.

He was just 0-4 in 2008, missing most of the season with a broken rib, then was shifted to the bullpen in June 2009 and became the primary setup man for closer Mariano Rivera. Back in the rotation the following year, he seemed set for stardom.

Then he went 0-1 with a 13.94 ERA in his first three starts last year, when he had trouble reaching 90 mph with his fastball.

He was sidelined from April 15 to July 6 because of an inflamed right shoulder and missed a chance to start in the playoffs when a seven-year-old back injury recurred in mid-September. He threw 2 1-3 scoreless innings over two appearances in the five-game division series loss to Detroit.

“The thing about this game, it’s not just going to happen,” Girardi said. “You’ve got to work it, this game. This game will humble you very quickly, because players make adjustments. You have to have an edge in this game, I think, and if you want to stay and be consistent and continue to get better, there has to be a strong work ethic, because someone is waiting to take your job.”

Girardi made it clear that Hughes had been told to report in better condition.

“The one thing that we expect of our players is that you come in in tip-top shape if you’ve been here before,” the manager said. “Spring training used to be a time when you got in shape. Not the case anymore.”

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