Collin McHugh Adds Option to Red Sox’s Weakened Rotation

With David Price shipped off to Los Angeles with Mookie Betts and Chris Sale’s spring beset by arm issues, the Red Sox rotation looks incredibly weak. With questionable internal alternatives, the Red Sox have added a potential solution from the free agent market in Collin McHugh, who will earn a base salary of $600,000 with incentives based on innings and active days on the roster that could push his earnings to a bit above $4 million.

Of course, McHugh was still on the market because he wasn’t cleared to throw until recently. He began last season in the rotation, but after four quality starts to begin the year, his performance went downhill in a hurry. Four ugly outings followed those four good ones and after two relief appearances, the latter a two-inning, four-strikeout performance, elbow soreness (but a clean MRI) meant time on the injured list. McHugh missed more than a month, then returned in a bullpen role at the end of June. He pitched well out of the pen, putting up a 3.65 FIP and 2.70 ERA through the end of August. Unfortunately, the elbow soreness returned; McHugh returned to the injured list and was eventually shut down for the season.

McHugh’s best years came as a reliable member of Houston’s rotation from 2014 to ’16. He made 90 starts and pitched at an above-average level, putting up an average of three wins per season. Elbow issues at the beginning of 2017 limited him to 12 starts at the end of the season before he was given a long relief role in the playoffs, where he made two appearances. He pitched the entire 2018 season in the bullpen before his up-and-down 2019 campaign.

What McHugh has to offer right now isn’t quite clear. He had a Tenex procedure over the winter, a minimally invasive procedure meant to remove damaged scar tissue. Despite his elbow problems, he has been able to avoid Tommy John surgery and the lengthy recovery that goes along with it. An offseason of rest combined with the removal of scar tissue could improve the 32-year-old righty’s health enough to get back in the rotation for a time. It’s possible, of course, he might be limited to the bullpen or not be able to pitch at a high enough level to get outs in the majors at all. There’s a reason he was available in March for a guarantee near the major league minimum. Time will tell.

McHugh’s game has never been about velocity, generally sitting in the low-90s with his four-seam fastball, and last year, he threw his 80 mph slider more than any other pitch. Over the course of his career he’s also used an upper-80s cutter, a low 70s curve, and occasionally a two-seamer and a change. If he moves back into the rotation, the cutter and curve are likely to be bigger parts of his arsenal, as opposed to simply deploying the slider and fastball he leaned on as a reliever.

McHugh has just a few weeks to get up to speed, so it’s not clear he’ll be ready for the start of the season, but once he gets ready, Boston shouldn’t have much issue finding a spot for him. He certainly chose a team that will give him the opportunity to maximize his abilities in the rotation. As I noted yesterday in my discussion of injuries shaping the AL East race, the Red Sox didn’t look to have a strong rotation even with Chris Sale:

With Sale pitching 151 innings and putting up 4.4 WAR, the Red Sox were projected to have the 20th best rotation in baseball with a solid season projected for Eduardo Rodriguez and something close to average for Martín Pérez and Nathan Eovaldi. After that, Ryan WeberTanner HouckMatt HallKyle Hart, and Hector Velázquez were projected to combine for a lot of below-average innings. If the Red Sox lose Sale, they quickly look like a low-80s win team very likely to miss the playoffs.

If healthy, there’s no reason McHugh won’t achieve his incentives; the team simply doesn’t have better options. Adding McHugh isn’t going to significantly shift the Red Sox outlook this season, particularly if he’s Chris Sale’s replacement, but if Sale comes back and McHugh can give the team 150 innings, their odds of making the playoffs improve.

This certainly isn’t a bad signing by the Red Sox. McHugh would have made sense for a lot of teams as rotation insurance and a potential bullpen option if starting doesn’t work out or isn’t needed. The Red Sox benefit because their pitching staff isn’t very good right now. There’s nobody to block McHugh from making the rotation and achieving his incentives. It’s a good news-bad news situation for Boston. The good news is they were able to nab McHugh at this point in spring. The reason they were able to get him is because of his injury history. The reason they needed to is because their current rotation is dreadful. That’s the bad news.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Phil Leemember
2 years ago

“If the Red Sox lose Sale, they quickly look like a low-80s win team very likely to miss the playoffs”.

With Sale they were on the outside looking in at the playoffs. W/O Sale 75 ish win team.