Making small-sample, late-season pronouncements about unestablished players for next season is a fool’s game, and I am not going to play it.
I am, however, going to very finely straddle that line about a guy I already liked: Alec Mills.
As a swing guy who can contribute in the bullpen and fill in the rotation, I’ve liked Mills for a couple years now. He was formerly a legit prospect with the Royals, and, when healthy, he’s really done little with the Cubs but pitch well at AAA and contribute quietly in the bigs. The rub is the injury stuff, which cost him huge chunks of time twice (hip issue, stress reaction in elbow), and it can’t be discounted going forward – the best predictor of future injuries, unfortunately, is past injuries.
But I do want to keep Mills, 27, at the top of folks minds when it comes to filling the very important Mike Montgomery/Tyler Chatwood swing role next year in the big league bullpen.
First, some love for his great fill-in start yesterday against a good Cardinals team in a huge game. Mills went 4.2 scoreless innings, allowing just two hits, two walks, and striking out six. He looked just flat-out good.
Alec Mills, Filthy 79mph Slider…and B(l)ader Sword. ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/S9iyWUuVSu
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 20, 2019
Every single Cubs infielder gave Alec Mills an emphatic bump on the chest as Maddon walked out to make a pitching change. It's clear they appreciate his effort today, pressed into spot-start duty for the injured Cole Hamels in a huge game.
— Tony Andracki (@TonyAndracki23) September 20, 2019
Over the last two seasons, Mills has appeared in 15 games for the Cubs, logging 49.0 innings in various roles, and has posted a 3.31 ERA (3.64 FIP), a 27.9% K rate, an 8.0% BB rate, and a 50.8% groundball rate. It’s not a sample you could extrapolate from, but clearly he passed the test of being able to face big league batters and not evaporate. Given his pedigree and minor league success, it is completely rational to look at him as an option to swing in the bullpen next year.
And if that’s how the Cubs feel, it will present them some really interesting options with respect to the guy who filled that role this year: Tyler Chatwood.
Chatwood, 29, will be entering the final year of his contract with the Cubs ($13 million) in 2020, coming off a year in which he has (so far) a 3.76 ERA over 76.2 innings, with a huge spike in his strikeout rate and drop in his walk rate, all while swinging in and out of roles – not an easy task. It’s entirely possible that the Cubs will be happy enough with him in that role that they won’t want to make a change. Fine by me.
But if the Cubs, for example, decide not to pursue a pricey impact starting pitcher in free agency (spending that money on the positional side and in the bullpen, for example?), or pick up a young arm or two in trade that they want to ease into the rotation (or if they have a guy internally about whom they feel that way), it’s possible the Cubs will want Chatwood to compete for the 5th starter job. Having Mills in the back pocket as a capable swing man makes Chatwood actually winning a rotation spot all the more plausible and palatable.
The other options presented by Mills’ emergence? Trading Chatwood to a team that wants to use him as a starting pitcher, and saving some scratch in the process. After this year, it seems pretty likely that there’s a team or two out there that would be willing to spend, say, $5 million on one year of Chatwood. Maybe more. If the Cubs wanted to go that route to beef up their available dollars to make impact moves elsewhere, again, the presence of Mills makes that all the more possible.
Mills, notably, is still on a pre-arbitration salary next year.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not handing out any jobs here. I just don’t think the Cubs should go into 2019 without six or seven quality starting pitching options anyway, so if you want to count one of Chatwood or Mills as that 6th or 7th guy, cool by me, so long as you make an impactful addition in the rotation. It remains possible that either guy, if he’s around, could wind up grabbing a rotation spot and locking it down next year.
From a planning perspective, though, let’s just instead be happy right now that the Cubs have two guys who look to be very capable swing arms, and that gives them some options.