Astros: Collin McHugh’s role in 2018 is a bit uncertain

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 29: Collin McHugh
HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 29: Collin McHugh /

The Astros have beefed up the pitching staff this off-season. And as you all know, there is never a limit on quality pitchers for a roster.

If the 2018 season started today, the Astros would most likely have the following five pitchers in the starting rotation: Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Gerrit Cole, Lance McCullers and Charlie Morton.

And you know what that means?

Capable pitchers that can start on multiple teams not named the Astros will have to find new roles. Like, Collin McHugh.

The most recent example we have similar to McHugh’s current situation is Brad Peacock’s role in 2017. The 29-year old started the 2017 season in the bullpen, yet he was thrust into the starting rotation as injuries piled up at Minute Maid Park. And he did a bang-up job with a 3.22 ERA and 3.08 FIP in 111.2 innings as a starter. In fact, this will most likely be Peacock’s role again this upcoming season as a swing man on the pitching staff.

McHugh may find himself with a similar job in 2018.

The 30-year old pitcher threw 63.1 innings across eleven starts in the majors this past season. A fatigued arm, which involved a posterior impingement in his right elbow, prevented McHugh from making his 2017 debut till July 22nd in Baltimore. Following his debut, McHugh would post respectable numbers as he finished the regular season with a 3.55 ERA and 3.82 FIP across 63.1 innings. He actually posted a 1.1 fWAR in 2017. For proper context, former Astros’ starter Mike Fiers posted a 0.1 fWAR in 153.1 innings. And Fiers led the pitching staff in innings pitched.

Barring a sudden injury or unexpected trade, McHugh will likely pitch out of the bullpen to start the 2018 season. Of course, next month’s Spring Training will play a role in any decision. He could still be traded to a team that could use him as a mid-rotation arm. But McHugh’s role as a swing man on this pitching staff seems to be firm for the time being.

However, you should still expect McHugh to start a game here or there in 2018 if the Astros hang on to him.

You see, Houston used eleven different starting pitchers in 2017.

Heck, Dayan Diaz even got a start.

To be fair, there were plenty of starts to be had with Keuchel, McCullers and Morton on the disabled list for long stretches of time. Alas, pitchers are fragile beings. If you want further proof, I double-dog dare you to pull up the New York Mets’ pitching depth chart and see how many injuries their pitching staff had last season.

In light of the ten-day disabled list, it may be advantageous for the Astros to exploit this even more in 2018. Jeff Zimmerman of Fangraphs has a piece from this past November that breaks down the disabled list trips by each team in 2017. The Los Angeles Dodgers, for example, had a total of 27 disabled list trips involving pitchers. Of those 27 trips, 14 were fifteen days or shorter. The Astros had 15 total trips and only two were fifteen days or shorter.

Don’t forget that there were a few relievers who spent time on the disabled list for the Astros, most notably Will Harris.

Regardless, this is something that the Astros should think about in 2018. If this is a method that could help starting pitchers stay healthier and more effective longer, well, I’m all for it.

Lastly, the front office led by Jeff Luhnow has  shown an inclination towards tandem starts. For those who are not familiar, that’s when one starting pitcher throws multiple innings followed by another starting pitcher who finishes the game. We could see more of that in the regular season, but I am still rather doubtful it will be anything more than an occasional occurrence. A recent example of what a tandem start looks like was in the postseason when Morton started Game 7 of the ALCS against the New York Yankees followed by Lance McCullers, who finished the game.

And 24 straight flipping curveballs.

Next: An unfortunate prediction; Dallas Keuchel will leave as a free agent after 2018

At the end of the day, McHugh’s role with the Astros is to provide depth in any manner, when necessary. Tandem starts, long relief appearances or normal starts, it doesn’t matter. There is a bit in the unknown, though, for McHugh. While short appearances will probably be avoided, one cannot simply rule them out completely. At the same time, he must be prepared to start on short notice. It may not be glamorous work, but it is needed.

**Statistics and information courtesy of Fangraphs**