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Mariners 2021 free agent target: Collin McHugh

A former enemy could be a fitting friend for 2021

Houston Astros v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Okay, look here, Mr. McHugh. In deference to my long-standing policy of not putting pictures of Astros players on the front page unless absolutely unavoidable, I could have used this picture, from your short-lived tenure with the Red Sox, as the header for this article:

Atlanta Braves v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

But I did not use this extremely meme-able picture, which should earn us some goodwill. Not since James Big Maple Paxton has such a deeply sad and haunted pair of eyes belonged to our fair franchise. Come to us, Collin! One of us! One of us!

So the reason C-Mac is pictured in Red Sox gear up there despite never recording an inning for Boston is he signed a one-year prove-it deal for 2020, but then whoops, global pandemic, and McHugh, who was coming off an elbow injury that hadn’t progressed as he’d liked, decided to opt out of the season. That makes the former Astro a free agent again for 2021, and a likely candidate to sign another one-year prove-it deal. That, in turn, makes the almost 34-year-old an attractive option for the Mariners as a nice warm body to take up space in the rotation, allowing further development time in 2021 for Seattle’s young prospects while burnishing his resume for a future suitor. Sounds like a win-win proposition, no?

Not so fast. The thing about McHugh is he had the always ominous-sounding “elbow soreness” in 2019, but didn’t go under the knife for TJ, instead opting for rehab for his flexor tendon strain and a surgical procedure to clean out scar tissue from his elbow. Part of his reason for opting out of the 2020 season other than not wanting to get COVID is he wasn’t where he wanted to be with his rehab, which, hmm. A clean bill of health, this is not. TJ surgery is a pain, literally and figuratively, because it knocks players out for so long, but it’s also a much more common and studied rehab path with general benchmarks vs. something like PRP injections or other kinds of treatment. So we have to draw a big question mark in the health column for McHugh, unfortunately.

But let’s assume that after almost two years of rehab, McHugh is fine from a health standpoint. What does a healthy-ish Collin McHugh bring to a ballclub, and how does the right-hander fit in with the Mariners?

McHugh would find himself right at home among Seattle’s soft-tossing crew, as his fastball velocity chills in the low-90s, slotting right between Marco Gonzales and Justus Sheffield’s average fastballs, only from the right side. Like those other two, McHugh makes his living on his secondaries, leaning primarily on his swing-and-miss slider, like Justus, but also able to mix in his 12-6 curveball and, to a lesser extent, a changeup. McHugh didn’t start using the slider extensively until 2017; the season after, the Astros moved him into primarily a relief role and he subsequently threw his slider almost to the exclusion of his other pitches. But if McHugh maybe wanted to throw his changeup more, well, there’s someone on staff who could show him a thing or two about a changeup. McHugh’s fastball got hit around pretty well in 2019—batters slugged almost .600 on it—but the Mariners pitching staff has experience with optimizing sub-optimal fastballs, and with a repertoire as varied as McHugh’s, they’d have a lot to work with.

Really, though, other pitches are great, but when you have this nasty of a slider, why not just throw it again and again and again:

McHugh’s 2019 numbers don’t jump off the page—a 4.43 FIP with a 25% K-rate not entirely offsetting a walk rate almost touching double digits—but his peripherals for the season look solid:

As someone who can easily flow between starter and relief roles, McHugh would bolster the league’s worst bullpen while also providing some stability for Seattle’s young rotation. A six-man rotation like Seattle plans to go with could allow McHugh to build up innings slowly, as well, and Seattle’s pitching depth means McHugh doesn’t have to be over-relied on in whatever role the teams sees for him.

McHugh would also be a good fit for team culture, despite his history as an Astro during the peak of the cheating scandal (about which he has acknowledged that he and his fellow players weren’t “brave” enough to “do the right thing”). He is outspoken on the issue of racial equity and committed to doing better himself, listening and learning. He is committed to issues of equality including diversifying baseball’s front offices and paying minor leaguers fairly. And he’s anti-the unwritten rules of baseball not only because they’re dumb, but also because they don’t make sense from an analytical standpoint. That’s the kind of engaged, active, equality-minded player who would fit in well with the current crop of Mariners.

If multiple teams are bidding on McHugh’s services, the Mariners probably wouldn’t be last on his list, but they probably would come in behind a team he had history with, like the Astros, Mets, or the Red Sox redux, or even his hometown Braves, assuming it’s all one-year deals on the table. But with a year away from baseball plus his injury history, McHugh, like Chris Archer, is another intriguing buy-low candidate who could help the 2021 Mariners in a variety of roles.