Last winter, the Cubs made a trade with Kansas City that sent quality outfield prospect Donnie Dewees to the Royals for right-handed pitcher Alec Mills. At the time, I loved this trade. And even though Mills lost pretty much all of 2017 to injury, I still love the trade.
If Mills is mentioned these days, it is in the context of the pitchers the Cubs acquired prior to 2017 that did not work out. In the case of Mills, though, that may not be entirely fair. He pitched only 14 innings for Iowa all year because he hurt his ankle in mid-April and never really made it all the way back. He didn’t even begin a rehab assignment until August 19, and he managed only another 14 innings of rehab work between Arizona and Myrtle Beach before finishing up the year in the Arizona Fall League.
That means Mills enters 2018 in pretty much the same state he entered 2017 (albeit at age 26 instead of age 25) – a high ground ball, moderate strikeout pitcher who generally avoids walks and limits the long balls, and is looking for his first real chance at the majors. If we were to paint a (realistic) picture of the ideal fifth starter, it might wind up looking a lot like Mills. Cost effective, decent stuff, and a good probability (thanks to the ground ball and walk rates) of not pitching himself into trouble and needing to burn up the bullpen.
And the Cubs have a fifth starter slot open for 2018. Match made in heaven?
Well, probably not. Or at least, that shouldn’t be the assumption.
I have a hard time seeing any Major League team serious about contending giving a starting job to a guy who pitched only 24 innings in the minors the previous season, who has never pitched more than 130 innings in any season in his career, and who has never previously established himself as a big-league-caliber starter. I still really like Mills as a fifth starter, and I do think he could slot into that role before the 2018 season is over regardless of where he begins the year, but I can’t see the Cubs expecting him to handle that workload all season.
So where does he fit in?
One very probable option is that Mills heads for Iowa as a starter in 2018 and focuses on just staying on the mound for 100+ innings with an eye towards joining the Major League team in 2019. The catch there is that I very much doubt that the Cubs will have an open rotation slot in 2019. Even if the Cubs do sign someone to a one year deal this winter, or if someone is injured thus opening a hole for 2019, there is a pack of higher ceiling pitching prospects coming in behind Mills who would be pushing for a major league look of their own by then.
Ultimately, be it in ’18 or ’19, if Mills is going find a long-term role with the Cubs, it is probably going to be in the bullpen. And there I think we definitely have a fit for the 2018 Cubs.
Mills, historically, does not walk people. And we know the Cubs are looking for guys who will throw strikes to put in the bullpen for next season. I don’t think we should expect him to work in the late innings – that would be a bit of an unusual role for a guy who pitches in the low ninties and relies on location to get his outs – but Mills could be right at home in the middle innings and working as a long relief guy or a spot starter.
Interestingly, in his last healthy minor league season (2016 in Triple A for the Royals), Mills actually got better results against left handed batters (3.76 ERA, .257 BAA, 28 K in 26.1 IP) than he did against right handed batters (4.55 ERA, .285 BAA, 26 K in 31.2 IP). That suggests he would be fine working against hitters from both sides in the sixth and seventh innings, another attribute that could pay off in a bullpen role.
What we don’t know yet is how well he would adapt to life in the bullpen. Some pitchers take a long time to warm up, for example, and they are often not well suited to relief work. And with the Cubs, we also have to consider whether or not he can dance. My scouting reports are silent on that point.
But I think this probably the path the Cubs will be trying. I would look for Mills to open the 2018 season in Iowa pitching in the rotation, mainly to shake off rust and build up a few dozen innings. At some point, though, probably by early summer if all goes well, we could see him transition to the bullpen for a week or two, and then head to Chicago just as soon as a spot opens (if an urgent need hasn’t developed in the rotation sooner).
If he works out in that role, the Cubs may have found themselves a nice middle reliever/swing guy for the next few seasons. And if not, there is that army of pitching coming up the minors I mentioned earlier, and they may well be looking for Major League jobs by the end of the season.[Brett: Mills got so little exposure last year as a “Cub” that we didn’t even have a picture of him in a Cubs uniform available to us.]