In an offseason that should see plenty of changes to the Chicago Cubs bullpen, Collin McHugh looks to be one of the team’s best possible additions.
This offseason may be the most important for the Chicago Cubs during the Theo Epstein era.
No, not because the Cubs will spend the most money and bring in major impact players, but because the team is at a crossroads. A core that was once hailed as baseball’s next dynasty is now in dire need of changes as the Cubs look to retool this winter and re-emerge as one of the best teams in the league.
For the Cubs to plant themselves at the top of the NL Central in 2020, they’ll need to make plenty of changes, especially to the bullpen.
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The Cubs bullpen finished eighth in baseball last year with a 3.98 ERA. If you watched the team all season, that top-10 finish may be surprising, but the bullpen really struggled when it mattered most. The Cubs blew 28 saves in 2019, tied for the sixth-most by any MLB team.
Now, as the front office looks to reinvigorate the Cubs’ roster, they have a lot of decisions to make on relievers. Many key pieces of the bullpen are now free agents, including Brandon Kintzler, Steve Cishek, David Phelps, Pedro Strop, and Derek Holland. In total, players who combined to throw over 42 percent of the Cubs’ bullpen innings last season are now free agents.
Taking a look at the Cubs’ publicly-posted depth chart shows only four notable contributors from 2018 that will still be on the roster next season – Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Tyler Chatwood, and Kyle Ryan.
To say the Cubs desperately need to add quality relief pitchers in free agency is an understatement.
Unfortunately for the Cubs, this years’ free agent class of relievers isn’t particularly strong. To make matters even worse, perhaps the top option has already been signed – the Atlanta Braves inked Will Smith to a three-year, $40 million contract just a few weeks ago.
Among the lackluster remaining options on the market, swingman Collin McHugh stands out above the crowd.
McHugh is a 32-year-old veteran right-hander with experience as both a starter and a reliever. Although he was drafted by the New York Mets in 2008 and made his MLB debut for them in 2012, McHugh didn’t make a name for himself until he found a long-term home with the Houston Astros in 2014.
In his first full season at the MLB level, McHugh was one of the lone bright spots on a dismal Astros team. He started 25 games pitching to a 2.73 ERA, 3.11 FIP, and a 25.4 percent strikeout rate.
After that 2014 breakout campaign, McHugh became a mainstay in the Astros rotation until he was struck by injuries during the 2017 season. Over those four years, McHugh started 102 games, posted a 3.70 ERA, and had a K-BB% 28 percent better than league average.
When McHugh returned from injury in 2018, he was relegated to a bullpen role. Despite the change of scenery, McHugh pitched even better than he did as a starter. In 72.1 relief innings that season, McHugh posted a 1.99 ERA, 2.72 FIP, 33.2 percent K%, and a 25.8 K-BB% – the 14th best mark of any relief pitcher.
After that dominant season in 2018, McHugh took a step back last year. He appeared in just 35 games while dealing with injuries – 27 as a reliever and eight as a starter. Altogether, McHugh ended 2019 with a 4.70 ERA and a 9.5 percent BB%, both career worsts for the veteran righty.
Because of his 2019 struggles and injuries, McHugh’s free agent stock is lower than it should be, but that means he could come at a bargain to a Cubs team looking to only shop the clearance racks this offseason.
FanGraphs projects McHugh to sign a two-year, $10 million deal, and if the Cubs can get him at that price point, the return on investment could be massive.
McHugh’s 2019 stats solely as a reliever look much better than his overall numbers. In those 27 games he pitched in relief last season, McHugh had a 2.67 ERA and 28.2 percent strikeout rate.
Those numbers aren’t far off from his incredible 2018 campaign, and it’s not out of the question that McHugh could regain that form with an offseason to get healthy and to work in the Cubs pitching lab.
Even if McHugh can’t get back to his dominant form, he’d still fill a valuable role on the North Side. He could remain towards the front of the Cubs bullpen, pitching primarily middle relief, but he’d also be available to make spot starts or even transition back to being a full-time starter if any of the rotation members land on the injured list. McHugh could fill Mike Montgomery‘s old role, but with an even higher level of production.
At best, signing McHugh gets the Cubs a much-needed shut down reliever. At worst, he’s an average reliever serving as an insurance option in case any of the starting pitchers get hurt. With that range of outcomes, signing McHugh this winter should be a priority.