When the lockout finally comes to an end, the Atlanta Braves will have several questions that will need to be addressed. The most obvious is first base, where Freddie Freeman remains a free agent. Next could be the outfield, where they could still bring some clarity to the situation. As far as the pitching staff goes, the Braves could use a starter or multi-inning relief option, something like free agent right-hander Collin McHugh.
McHugh was a key piece of the Astros’ pitching staff during their 2017 run to a World Series title, but only made 12 regular season starts and worked out of the bullpen in the playoffs. He shifted to relief full time in 2018 and worked as a multi-inning weapon. An elbow injury limited his effectiveness in 2019. McHugh signed with the Red Sox in 2020, but later opted out of the season. He signed a one-year, $1.8 million deal with the Rays last February in hopes of re-establishing himself.
McHugh did that and more, as he turned in a solid season for Tampa Bay. He appeared in 37 games while posting a 1.55 ERA and a 2.12 FIP (1.8 fWAR) in 64 innings. He produced a 30 percent strikeout rate, which was the second highest of his career, while his walk rate dropped from 9.5 percent in 2019 to 4.9 percent.
What is interesting about McHugh is how he has changed his pitch mix in recent seasons. During his heyday in Houston, he worked primarily with a fastball, slider/cutter, curveball combination. Starting in 2017, his cutter/slider, which was more cutter-y, became more slider-y. In 2019, the slider usage started to heavily eat into how often he threw other pitches. He took that a step further with the Rays, relying on his slider about 53% of the time while mixing it with the cutter that he hadn’t relied on much since he was a starter. Per Baseball Savant, opponents hit .177 with a .219 xwOBA against the slider. They had an xwOBA of .270 against the cutter.
McHugh’s slider versus George Springer 9/20
McHugh’s cutter versus Joc Pederson 7/18
McHugh could theoretically fit in well with the Braves, as he would give them another multi-inning relief option. His days of starting are likely over and it’s hard to come out and say he’s definitely going to be there for more than 50 innings in 2022, but he could give the Braves options as an opener, high-leverage right-handed arm, or multi-inning flex guy, all without them forcing someone else from the organization to take on those roles. The back end of the bullpen appears to be set, but McHugh would fit as more of a non-traditional piece which is something that they haven’t really had out of the bullpen so far, so they’d need to adapt to sometimes having him available to fill that niche. Whatever his potential role, McHugh comes with serious injury concerns, as he had two different stints on the shelf last season. Still, as a supplemental piece, he could add more depth to the bullpen, and really the pitching staff as a whole, unless the Braves are committed to a very regimented rotation-and-bullpen-hierarchy like the teams of yesteryear.
FanGraphs’ Ben Clemens projected a two-year, $24 million deal for McHugh, although the average crowdsource estimate was far less sanguine at just $5.5 million. I can’t see the Braves approaching that high-end contract estimate, but he would be an interesting option if the bidding is below that. The main benefit to the Braves would be that they could just import McHugh to do a bunch of roles, without having to change the usage of some of their less-established prospects or former prospects, or existing relievers, to fill those spots if they come up. That flexibility sounds really nice in theory, but it depends on whether the Braves actually want a player like that in lieu of something more standard.