The Third Starter

Collin McHugh is all that so far

Collin McHugh/Facebook

I know we're just four starts in and you can't make any assumptions in a baseball season until September but maybe just maybe the Astros have found their third starter and he's been right under our nose the whole time.

This is not something the organization had to realize. They've been on the Collin McHugh train since the offseason began. We fans have been slower on the uptake.

The first rumblings came early in the offseason when the team allegedly went after Nathan Eovaldi then James Paxton. They obviously had a number for each in mind that they wouldn't exceed and they lost out to the Red Sox and Yankees on both.

I for one wanted to see them go after Corey Kluber. I dreamed of a rotation of Verlander, Kluber, Cole and then fill in the gaps. Those three at the top of any rotation is the stuff parades are made of. It wasn't realistic to think the Indians wold trade him to the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year but I could dream anyway.

Can't tell you how many times I've been asked if the Astros would re-sign Dallas Keuchel. My answer every time has been a fervent no. It seems almost inconceivable that a guy who won the Cy Young four years ago and was a number two starter on a World Series team just two years ago is still out of work but he's just not the same dominant guy he was. Not even close. Soft tossing lefties are not in high demand especially ones who are 31 and looking for big money long term deals. His last couple of years have not warranted it. He started 2017 with a 9-0 record. He had shoulder issues and finished the second half with a 5-5 record but more than that, every important stat was worse post all-star break. Maybe that was due to the injury but last year when he was thought to healthy he wasn't much better. He gave up more hits and faced more batters than anyone in the league. His WAR was his second worst since 2013. His K/W was down. His WHIP was up and so on and so on. He's not a top of the rotation guy anymore but wants to be paid like it. The marketplace is telling him it's not going to happen, not unless a good team gets desperate anyway.

In spring training Forest Whitley was all the rave. He looked great and he was ready to come in and assume that role of third starter. One problem: tough to do that from Round Rock and oh by the way he hasn't been all that in his two starts. His second outing on Monday lasted 1 1/3 and he has a 9.95 ERA. No big deal but not something any player wants to look up at on the scoreboard no matter how early in the season. The common thought is that the club will bring him up in June to get that extra year of service. If so it'll be plenty of time for Whitley to get acclimated to the bigs and pitch in some pressure games before the postseason. He's got top of the rotation stuff and could eventually be the ace here but when he does get here he's going to have prove that he's good enough to be the third starter on this staff because Collin McHugh won't relinquish that without a fight.

For whatever reason I just don't believe we've bought into McHugh as a big time starter. Maybe it's because of how he looks. Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with his looks but it's not what an overpowering athlete is in 2019. Verlander and Cole look the part, McHugh not so much. But looks can be deceiving. Since he's joined the Astros he's had a winning record every year. He's 57-31. He's had a 19 win season. Some 3rd starters never do that. After going 48-28 over 4 seasons as a starter he was asked to come out of the bullpen and responded with what could have and maybe should have been an all-star season.

One big question coming into this season was whether or not McHugh could pitch deep into games after a year in the pen. He went 3 innings twice all of last season. If he couldn't it would certainly tax a bullpen that looks weaker without him and Brad Peacock. So far though he's gone six innings in 3 of his 4 starts. That could get better but A.J. may have some of the same doubt about him that we do. If your name is Verlander or Cole, A.J. will leave you in until you think you're done. If your name isn't Verlander or Cole he takes you out when he thinks you're done.

It's a long season and there are a bunch of starts left but McHugh has allayed some of the fears many of us had this offseason. He certainly looks the part of a 3rd starter on a championship team so far.

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Christopher Bell is starting to hit his stride. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

The Cup Series makes its second trip to the Badger State this weekend for the Kwik Trip 250 at Road America. This track is one of the most unique road courses in all the world. Opened in 1955, Road America is the largest racetrack on the NASCAR schedule. It has 14 corners and multiple long straightaways. Considering how massive of a track it is, we will see fuel strategy play a big part in the race. The race should be a three-four stop race, so we will more than likely see drivers try to short-pit to cut the race strategy in half, similar to what we saw Matt DiBenedetto do last season.

Last Week at Nashville, Chase Elliott was able to get a good enough restart and hold off Kurt Busch to claim his 15th career win and his second of 2022. On the last restart, there was a bit of controversy after Brad Keselowski crashed with 3 laps to go. Regardless, NASCAR did not throw the caution and the race continued on, allowing Elliott to drive off into the sunset. At first glance, not throwing the yellow flag seemed like it wasn’t the right decision.

Brad was clearly off the pace and possibly laying down debris, that alone seemed like it was worthy of a caution but after a second look, I understand why NASCAR made the decision they did. There had been a long rain delay, and they were ready to get back home. Regardless, the race was won and lost by the decision to pit or not to pit on the final restart. The dominant car of the day was Kyle Busch, his chances of victory were dashed after the team decided to go down pit road and give up their track position. I am sure that decision by crew chief Ben Beshore is one he’d like to have back.

Another team that struggled in pit road was the #23 of Bubba Wallace. All season, this pit crew has continued to let down their driver, and it’s a shame because they have had some really fast cars. No one else in the field passed as many cars as he did, and it was all because he would either have to deal with a loose wheel or a bad pit stop. While he was able to rebound to an acceptable 12th place finish, the results haven’t been indicative of where they should finish. At Kansas, Bubba had the fastest car on the track for the better part of the day but again because of a loose wheel, he would have to come from the back.

Now I can understand that this team is a new team and didn’t have the luxury of buying a whole race team like Trackhouse did, but this is becoming more and more of a habit, and it’s costing them dearly. This week will be even more challenging considering that the cars will enter their pit-stall in the opposite direction. Let's hope for their sake that they get these things figured out, they are running out of time to try and make the playoffs and join their teammate Kurt Busch in the round of 16.

Ryan Blaney was able to complete an incredible comeback last week. Earlier in the race, Blaney would slap the wall in turn four and spin. He would rebound to finish third and appeared to have a car to contend for the win on the last restart. Blaney has really flown under the radar this season. While he hasn’t won a points paying event this season, no one has been more consistent than him. Blaney is having a season similar to Denny Hamlin's from last year, as he scores a lot of stage points and finishes upfront almost weekly. He didn’t have a good race here last year, but these cars are much different, so it will be a completely different racetrack.

My pick to win this weekend is Christopher Bell. To some, this might be a bit of a surprise pick, but he has been running really well. Over the last six races, no one has a higher average finish than he does. It seems like he is starting to hit his stride, and now they are going to a race he nearly won last season. A win would almost be required for Bell to make the chase, right now he is safe. But with the abundance of winners we have seen this season, it will benefit him the most to get a victory and assure his ticket to the playoffs. If he can continue this run of consistency, look out for Bell to take the checkered flag on Sunday.

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