Hughes ready to be bullpen's southpaw standout

March 12th, 2023

MESA, Ariz. -- The big leagues probably felt far away for Brandon Hughes a year ago. He was down in Minor League camp, still relatively new to pitching as a converted outfielder and preparing to open the season with Double-A Tennessee.

To call last year a whirlwind does not do it justice. Hughes' rise from unheralded farmhand to big leaguer to one of manager David Ross' most trusted late-inning options was meteoric. The southpaw arrived to camp this spring as the lone left-hander with a job virtually lined up in the Cubs' bullpen.

"This is my first big league camp," said Hughes, who worked the eighth inning in Sunday’s 5-3 Cactus League loss to the Brewers, "which is kind of weird to say, because I went through that season last year. It's just about growing, developing and keep getting better."

The Cubs have some other lefties under consideration this spring -- non-roster invitees , , , and , among them -- but Hughes is the main lefty reliever on the 40-man. There is a chance he is the only southpaw in the Opening Day relief corps.

The way Ross views the situation, it is a "luxury" to carry a second lefty. The manager is quick to note that, in a world with the three-batter minimum rule, having pitchers capable of retiring lefties and righties is what matters. And Ross does not really care which hand that pitcher uses.

Looking at last year's bullpen, right-handers (.140/.260/.140 slash line) and non-roster invitee (.171/.230/.295) did well against lefty batters while in relief. Additions like , and have shown an ability to handle lefties in the past, too.

"We're just looking for outs," Ross told reporters earlier this week. "The manager's looking for outs. I don't care what side of their body they hold the ball on. That doesn't matter to me. I just want them to get outs."

Hughes certainly did that last year.

Across Double-A and Triple-A at the start of the season, Hughes piled up 22 strikeouts against three walks in 16 2/3 innings, allowing no runs and just five hits. The lefty found himself on the mound for the Cubs by May 17, when he struck out five of the six batters he faced in his MLB debut against the Pirates.

When the smoke cleared on Hughes' rookie campaign, he had a 3.12 ERA with 68 strikeouts and 21 walks in 57 2/3 innings. He fanned 28.5 percent of the batters he faced, found himself in high-leverage moments and showed he could go multiple innings, if needed.

Hughes did not have much time to really think about the ride he just went on until the offseason arrived.

"Then, it was a bunch of digesting what actually happened last year," he said. "When you're in the moment, I'm prepping for each and every day, reading the scouting reports and then attacking hitters. And then after the season, it was kind of digesting what worked, what wasn't working, what do I need to work on, things like that."

The 27-year-old Hughes -- selected in the 16th round of the 2017 Draft as an outfielder out of Michigan State -- relies mostly on a four-seamer and slider for the Cubs. His slider was particularly effective, netting a 49.1 percent whiff rate, per Statcast. Only Andrew Chafin (60.4 percent) and Josh Hader (54.3 percent) had a better slider whiff rate among lefty pitchers (min. 50 pitches).

Hughes also mixes in a sinker and came into camp this spring with the goal of working more on his changeup. Both of those offerings have the type of movement that could help better neutralize right-handed batters.

This season, Hughes will be able to keep learning his way in the big leagues from veterans like Fulmer and Boxberger. Last year, the lefty said experienced relievers like David Robertson, Chris Martin, Mychal Givens and Daniel Norris played a key role in his learning curve.

Robertson, in particular, took Hughes under his wing before the veteran was traded to the Phillies at the Deadline.

"D-Rob was huge for me," Hughes said. "He was always in my ear, because he knew I was young and he knew I was an inexperienced pitcher, knowing that I only had three years under my belt pitching."

Hughes plans on carrying those little lessons into this season and -- no matter if there is another lefty in the 'pen with him or not -- says the goal for the year ahead is simple.

"The bullpen, I feel, is going to be really good," Hughes said. "We want to win and we're ready to win."