Boston Red Sox roll the dice with upside of Collin McHugh

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - MAY 01: Collin McHugh #31 of the Houston Astros pitches against the Minnesota Twins on May 1, 2019 at the Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Astros 6-2. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - MAY 01: Collin McHugh #31 of the Houston Astros pitches against the Minnesota Twins on May 1, 2019 at the Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Astros 6-2. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images) /
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The Boston Red Sox have signed right-handed pitcher Collin McHugh to an incentive laden contract that brings upside if he bounces back from injury.

When your starting rotation is dangerously thin on depth you need to gamble on a few lottery tickets. The Boston Red Sox may have found a jackpot winner if everything breaks right for Collin McHugh.

The team announced on Thursday that they have signed the right-hander to a one-year deal for the 2020 season. Hector Velazquez has been designated for assignment to clear a spot on the 40-man roster.

Alex Speier of The Boston Globe reports that McHugh will earn a base salary of $600,000 with incentives based on innings and availability. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman adds that those incentives start at 30 innings pitched and work their way up to 115 innings. There are also roster bonuses included that range between 15 and 90 days on the active roster. McHugh can earn up to $4.25 million if he hits the peak of those benchmarks.

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McHugh settled for an incentive-laden short-term deal in the middle of spring training as he works his way back from elbow discomfort that ended his 2019 campaign. I know what you’re thinking, “Just what we need, another starting pitcher with elbow issues!” That’s fair, although it’s not as if pitchers as talented as McHugh are sitting around waiting to be scooped up. Finding a diamond in the rough means rolling the dice on a player who may have some warts but has the potential to emerge as a key contributor.

After failed stints with the New York Mets and Colorado Rockies, McHugh broke out in his first full season with the Houston Astros. He went 11-9 with a 2.73 ERA and 9.1 K/9 to put himself in the Rookie of the Year conversation. A year later, McHugh won 19 games with a solid 3.89 ERA to finish eighth on the Cy Young ballot.

McHugh was limited to 12 starts in 2017 after undergoing elbow surgery in April. The Astros moved him to the bullpen the following season where he thrived but an attempt to convert him back into a starter proved unsuccessful last year. He went back to the bullpen before soreness in his surgically repaired elbow shut him down in August.

While it’s certainly a concern that McHugh has dealt with elbow issues in two of the last three seasons, he was recently cleared to begin throwing after a tenex procedure alleviated the elbow concern. He’ll probably begin the year on the injured list as he builds up his arm strength.

The timeline for when McHugh will be ready to contribute remains murky and interim manager Ron Roenicke hasn’t decided how he’ll utilize the right-hander once he’s available. He explained that McHugh is willing to join the rotation or work out of the bullpen so Roenicke will figure out how to fit him in once he’s ready to get back on the mound.

Their desperation for healthy arms could push the Red Sox to speed up his timeline by putting him in the bullpen, a role he thrived in two years ago when he posted a 1.99 ERA and 11.7 K/9. Boston has toyed with the idea of using an opener for at least one of their rotation spots and McHugh could fill that role while gradually being stretched out to a full starter’s workload.

The Red Sox have a few underwhelming options batting for the No. 5 spot in the rotation and will presumably have an additional void to fill early in the season with Chris Sale‘s status uncertain. Boston will be scrambling to piece together innings in the early going but if Sale and McHugh both make successful returns from their elbow injuries then this rotation could end up being fairly solid.

That’s far from a lock to happen but McHugh offers more upside than any of the internal options the Red Sox have been testing this spring. If he returns to pre-injury form, Boston has a strong middle of the rotation arm on a bargain contract. He could end up being a valuable weapon out of the bullpen if his arm can’t hold up under a starter’s workload. If he doesn’t pan out in either role, that means he’s unlikely to hit most of those incentives so it won’t end up costing them much.

Next. Sale avoids worst-case scenario. dark

There’s plenty of risk in banking on a pitcher with elbow issues but when the alternatives aren’t very appealing, you have to take a chance. There’s nothing to lose by giving McHugh a shot.