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With McCullers out, McHugh eyes rotation spot

After spending 2018 in 'pen, righty ready to start if needed
MLB.com @alysonfooter

TOKYO -- Astros right-hander Collin McHugh is currently on the other side of the world, but that didn't prevent him from turning his thoughts, briefly, to next season.

The news that Lance McCullers Jr. underwent Tommy John surgery -- while not a huge shock for those who watched him miss ample time with an arm injury and then attempt to make a comeback in time for the postseason -- finally answered the question that had lingered since the Astros' exit in the playoffs: Will they need to find a rotation replacement for 2019?

TOKYO -- Astros right-hander Collin McHugh is currently on the other side of the world, but that didn't prevent him from turning his thoughts, briefly, to next season.

The news that Lance McCullers Jr. underwent Tommy John surgery -- while not a huge shock for those who watched him miss ample time with an arm injury and then attempt to make a comeback in time for the postseason -- finally answered the question that had lingered since the Astros' exit in the playoffs: Will they need to find a rotation replacement for 2019?

The answer is clearly yes. And McHugh, who pitched well as a starter for Houston before a loaded rotation in 2018 pushed him to the 'pen, will be a prime candidate to fill one of several open starting spots the Astros have heading into next year.

"We'll see what that looks like," McHugh said prior to the Major League All-Stars' workout at the Tokyo Dome on Wednesday. "I'll be preparing this offseason as a starter. That's what I did last offseason, so it won't be that different. It's what I've done every offseason. I'm not too worried about that part. In Spring Training, we'll see how it plays out in terms of stretching me out a little bit and getting back in that groove of once every five days taking the ball instead of once every day or two."

Video: McCullers Jr. undergoes Tommy John surgery

The Astros essentially have three starting spots to fill, as they could likely lose Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton to free agency, in addition to McCullers via injury. McHugh, who will be pitching this week in the Japan All-Star Series that includes games in Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagoya, is a prime candidate to fill one of those spots, given his past success as a starter.

McHugh is approaching this with an air of confidence, as well as a sense of humor. He tweeted a response to Astros president and general manager Jeff Luhnow's comment that they'll be exploring the trade market and free-agent market for starters with an emoji of a man raising his hand.

Tweet from @Collin_McHugh: 🙋��������� https://t.co/AVobjmCIqw

From 2014-16, McHugh won 43 games in 90 starts, and he was a 19-game winner in '15 -- the first year the Astros made the postseason after a 10-year drought.

McHugh moved to the bullpen in 2018 following the Astros' trade for right-hander Gerrit Cole, which made an already crowded rotation even tougher to crack. McHugh appeared in 58 games as a reliever this past season, compiling a 1.99 ERA.

McHugh will be one of several candidates competing for a starting job when the Astros reconvene for Spring Training in February. Brad Peacock, another former starter who was moved to the bullpen last season, will likely be considered, as will upstarts Josh James, Framber Valdez and Cionel Perez.

McHugh, who just completed his fifth full season with Houston, is confident the Astros have enough talent to fill a rotation that less than a year ago had no openings.

"I wouldn't sleep on the fact that Peacock threw basically a full season of sub-three [ERA] baseball -- an incredibly quality Major League pitcher," McHugh said. "I've got enough years of experience down there to be able to hold my own in the rotation. We've got some kids coming up -- we've seen a few of them with Josh and Framber, and people are going to see Forrest [Whitley] in the [Arizona] Fall League do some really cool things.

"We've got talent, we've got arms. It's just a matter of putting the pieces together in the right way and coming up with a championship ballclub."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.

Houston Astros, Collin McHugh