Alex Cobb signed with Baltimore earlier this week, ending his free agency a little over a week before the start of the regular season. Because he was so late to arrive to Orioles camp, Cobb will begin the season in the minors to get some extra preparation time before spending up to the next four years pitching in Camden Yards.
The Milwaukee Brewers were one of many teams linked to Alex Cobb - and the other ‘big four’ free agent starters - throughout the winter, but if a recent report is true it turns out that their interest was perhaps only tepid at best. Milwaukee spent big on upgrading their lineup and defense during the offseason but looked mostly at potential bargain contracts for their pitching staff. According to Jon Heyman, the Brewers made only a one-year offer to Cobb that would’ve paid him $12 mil for 2018.
Heyman says that Cobb was a logical fit for Milwaukee, but the Brewers were only willing to offer him a short-term contract - with essentially identical terms to the deal Lance Lynn received from Minnesota - in case he wound up having to settle in free agency. But Cobb and his agent were insistent on a multi-year deal all winter, however, and he was able to secure four years and $57 mil from Baltimore to join their rotation (the deal does include deferrals).
As discussed previously on these pages, there are numerous potential reasons to explain why GM David Stearns and company were reluctant to invest heavily in Alex Cobb, including his checkered health history, projected production versus expected contract, and the input of AGM Matt Arnold. Though they may have essentially passed on Cobb by making a non-competitive offer, Heyman suggests elsewhere within the article that the Brewers are still eyeing the pitching market, as are the Rangers, Mariners, and Reds. In same the breath, Heyman says that current Astro Collin McHugh is available in trade.
Stearns hasn’t shied away from dealing with his former employer during his tenure in Milwaukee, and McHugh is certainly a player that the young GM should be familiar with. The Astros picked McHugh up off the waiver wire back in 2013 after their front office identified his high-spin curveball as a possible weapon and watched him almost immediately blossom into an extremely useful starter. He pitched 150+ innings and recorded 3+ fWAR in each season from 2014-2016 before a right posterior elbow impingement limited him to 12 starts last year. During his four-year tenure in Houston, McHugh has logged 606.1 innings with a 3.70 ERA and marks of 8.2 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9. The right-hander will turn 31 this July and signed a $5 mil deal to avoid arbitration this past winter. He reach free agency for the first time in his career after the 2019 season.
McHugh’s fastball velocity averaged a career-low 90.7 MPH last season across his 63.1 innings, but that didn’t stop him from spiking his four-seam usage up to a previously unseen level of 45.2% (career 35.9%) while slicing his cutter usage by two-thirds. He also added a slider to offer a different look from his plus curveball, and the results yielded career-bests in swinging strike rate (12.4%) and contact rate (73.7%). McHugh is a fly-ball pitcher who has been quite adept at limiting hard contact throughout his time in the big leagues and that trend continued in 2017, as his allowed hard contact rate of 28.6% fell well below the league average and nearly mirrored his career total of 28.3%. Overall he produced a 3.55 ERA and 79 DRA- last season with 62 punchouts against 20 free passes.
The strength of Houston’s rotation is such that both the depth charts at Astros.com and Roster Resource have McHugh beginning the year in the bullpen even with all the success he’s had over the past four seasons. But just because he may be viewed as “expendable” doesn’t mean he is likely to come cheap. A deal around former ‘Stro Domingo Santana could make some sense if Houston is looking for a bat to add to their outfield mix and to help upgrade over Evan Gattis at DH, but that’s purely my own speculation.
A move before Opening Day feels unlikely, so for now the Brewers will attempt to decide between Junior Guerra, Brent Suter, and Brandon Woodruff - now that Wade Miley is on the shelf - for one or possibly two open spots in the Opening Day starting rotation. But McHugh could be a name to keep on eye on as a potential trade deadline target for Milwaukee, assuming he isn’t dealt before then.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus