We haven’t had a lot of opportunities to “get to know” new big league Cubs players this offseason, because … there haven’t been that many new Cubs players this offseason. And, of course, most of the new guys that have put on the Cubbie blue pinstripes this winter aren’t exactly plug-and-play/obvious-starter types.
Against that backdrop, we DO have a new Cub to introduce today, and it’s lefty reliever Tim Collins.
Over the weekend, the Chicago Cubs designated left-hander Brian Duensing for assignment and used his vacant roster spot to add left-hander Tim Collins, who comes over from the Twins. Collins got a big-league deal from the Cubs, but has options remaining, which means he can – and likely will – be shuttled back and forth between the big league pen and Iowa this season, as needed.
Unless of course he’s able to rediscover the early success of his injury-interrupted career.
Here’s a little history lesson: Collins, who was originally overlooked because of his height (5’7″), began his professional career in the Blue Jays system back in 2008. By 2010, he had posted a 2.51 ERA (2.29 FIP) at Double-A with a 42.7% strikeout rate and 9.4% walk rate – the sort of performance that ultimately put him on the national radar as an intriguing trade piece. Minor league relievers rarely draw that much attention, but Collins was good and did.
Uniquely, Collins was actually traded twice in July 2010, first to the Braves on July 14th and again two weeks later to the Royals. After succeeding in Double-A with the Braves (1.13 ERA) and eventually Triple-A with the Royals (1.33 ERA), Collins earned his call to the big leagues as a 21-year-old(!) at the start of the 2011 season.
As a big league reliever from 2011-2013, Collins earned a solid 3.51 ERA (3.79 FIP) over 190.0 IP. His command wasn’t exactly ideal (13.4%), but he was striking out 25% of the batters he faced, and allowed just a .220 average against thanks, in part, to an extremely low 25.4% hard-hit rate. In other words, he was a very good, very young, middle-to-setup-ish-reliever, who could strike guys out and keep the hard contact to an extreme minimum.
It’s also worth noting, especially given his small stature, that he was able to remain a pretty split-neutral hurler:
Versus Lefties: .316 wOBA, 3.46 ERA
Versus Righties: .294 wOBA, 3.54 ERA
In other words, Collins wasn’t just a LOOGY. He was a legitimate, full-inning reliever, with solidly above average numbers across the board at a very young age.
… and that’s when the wheels fell off.
In 2014, Collins’ peripherals took a hit (4.80 FIP) and he was bounced to the Minor Leagues for part of the season. The very next Spring, 2015, Collins got the news: Tommy John surgery was going to be necessary. That forced him out of the entire 2015 season, but at such a young age, that wasn’t supposed to be the end of anything. Sadly, unlike so many of his peers, Collins’ first Tommy John surgery wasn’t successful, and he needed a second surgery one year later.
“It was kind of tough to swallow,” Collins told the Star Tribune of his double surgery fate. “But at that point I was already knee deep in the first rehab. So I just got back at it and kept going.” Despite the commitment, Collins later admitted that he knew the chances of coming back from a second Tommy John surgery were far worse. As the Star Tribune put it: “He went from pitching in the World Series with Kansas City in 2014 to not returning to the majors until May 2018, when he appeared in 38 games for Washington.”
Collins long-awaited return to the show last year wasn’t particularly successful, but for a guy four years and two Tommy John surgeries removed from his last big league pitch, it was a relative success: 4.37 ERA (but 5.76 FIP).
That display of health was enough to earn Collins a minor league deal from the Twins heading into 2019, though he did not ultimately make the team. Despite their decision to go in another direction in the bullpen, Twins GM Thad Levine seems to be a pretty big fan: “Explosive fastball, and he had a knee-buckling curveball. He was one of those guys where you kept looking at the program to see what his actual height was because he seemed like he was throwing like he was 6-4.”
And he’s not alone in that, which is why the Cubs scooped him up right away. According to the Chicago Tribune, Theo Epstein has been trying to get Collins since August, and he’s not shy about why:
“I love his competitiveness,” Epstein said. “He’s someone who never backs down and goes right after guys. He really has a ton of self-belief and he’s got legitimate stuff too. He’s got an above-average fastball and knows how to use it up in the zone.
“He’s always had a very good curveball and has developed a cutter that gives him another look against lefties that he can use as a chase pitch, and a (he’s) guy who can miss a bat. That’s an interesting different look than some of the other left-handed relievers we have who have their own strengths.”
There’s no reason to believe Collins is some miracle answer to the Cubs bullpen questions – indeed, that’s not really the idea with this deal. At a certain point, with a certain budget, the best thing a team can do is go out and get flawed, but talented guys – ideally someone with options like Collins – to prepare some high-upside depth pieces to shuffle in and out as needed. If he clicks, great. If not, there’s not much risk. (Heck, the Cubs might even try to sneak him through waivers at some point and outright him to Iowa.)
I think we’re all quite familiar with these types of moves and the extremely low hit-rate – but, hey, that doesn’t mean you stop trying.