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What can the Rays get out of RHP Collin McHugh?

He transformed into an elite reliever in 2018, but injury and a pandemic have clouded his future role.

Houston Astros v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Rays are reportedly closing in on a deal with free agent RHP Collin McHugh, per a report from Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. We will update this story accordingly if a major or minor league deal is finalized.

McHugh, 33, has pitched in parts of eights seasons in the Major Leagues, primarily as a member of the Houston Astros. He was originally drafted by the New York Mets in the 18th round of the 2008 draft. Despite the low draft round and never meriting much stock as a prospect, McHugh worked his way through the system and made his big league debut during the 2012 season.

Eventually, the Mets traded McHugh to the Colorado Rockies, but didn’t last long in that organization as he’d be designated for assignment a short while later, where the Houston Astros claimed McHugh off waivers. While with Houston, McHugh reached a new level as he produced several fantastic seasons, accruing an impressive 9.3 fWAR from 2014 through 2016, with a 3.71 ERA and 3.57 FIP as a starter.

During the 2017 season, injuries began to plague McHugh and he missed most of the season, totaling just 12 starts, although he still displayed solid results as he finished with a 3.55 ERA and 3.82 FIP over 63 13 innings pitched.

In 2018, the Astros transitioned McHugh to the bullpen, where he enjoyed immense success as one of the top relievers in baseball. Able to cover multiple innings, McHugh threw 72 13 innings over 58 appearances and finished the season with a 1.99 ERA and 2.72 FIP. With his transition to the bullpen, McHugh showcased a spike in his strikeout numbers, registering a 33.2 K% compared to his career average of 21.5% up to that point.

Unfortunately, 2019 was a step back for McHugh as his strikeouts returned to his still-good-but-not-god-tier strikeout rate of 25% and saw his stats balloon to a 4.70 ERA despite a league average FIP.

McHugh would become a free agent for the first time at the end of the 2019 season and over the winter, he elected to undergo a procedure on his elbow.

The Boston Red Sox signed McHugh to a one year deal, but once the pandemic hit, McHugh elected out of the season in part due to the pandemic as well as a slower than expected recovery from his surgery.

He signed with the Red Sox for 2020 but opted out after the pandemic pause interrupted his rehab from a 2019 flexor strain and an offseason procedure to clean out scar tissue in his elbow

[Tampa Bay Times]

McHugh’s case is more about an injury than the COVID-19 pandemic, as he has struggled to bounce back from an elbow issue that plagued him last year in Houston. The 30-year-old right-hander was going to be on the injured list for most of — if not all of — MLB’s planned 60-game 2020 campaign.

[NBC Sports]

McHugh is reportedly back in good health now. In January, McHugh put on a showcase for interested teams. McHugh must have impressed at the workout with the Rays obviously believing that the veteran righty was healthy enough to return to the big leagues.

Not known to be a hard thrower, it will be difficult to gauge velocity as a sign of health for his arm. In his career, even in his injured 2019 season, McHugh sat 90-92 on his fastball, but he’s made up for it with decent spin, in the top 25% of pitchers. But it’s not the fastball you should be monitoring anyway.

McHugh’s calling card is a variety of breaking balls that he’s emphasized has been a moving target. The latest iteration has McHugh primarily throwing a slow slider that sweeps across the plate:

But an earlier iteration of McHugh featured a high spin rate curveball. Here’s one such pitch from 2018 fooling Rajai Davis away...

... and Robinson Chirinos inside.

We didn’t really see that curveball much in 2019, and — again — we didn’t see McHugh at all in 2020.

The final pitch in the mix is a cutter that on a quick review of 2019 use does not appear to be all that competitive. It looks like more of a show-me pitch that adds variety to his repertoire than what might be expected (i.e. as a groundball inducing breaking ball or a de facto change). If the Rays scrapped it, the difference wouldn’t be noticeable.

There will be plenty for the Rays to play with here, but we don’t know what they’re getting either. Of the January showcase the only report of note is from Topkin who said McHugh “looked good.” There’s some expectation that this will be a major league deal when finalized from Topkin, so stay tuned on roster moves.