Alec Mills pitched three hitless innings in the late half of the Cubs’ split squad games Monday night, striking out three and issuing one walk against the A’s at Hohokam Park. It was his second start and third appearance of the spring, none of which have been blemished by a hit from an opposing batter. Six hitless innings early in spring training don’t mean nothing, and I’m not even saying that as a nod to the common parlance of my boyhood hometown.
If I may dispense with double negatives in the interest of clarity, Mills’ limited production backs up his previous MLB results and PECOTA’s projections for him in 2020. The computer model pegged the 28-year-old righty for 1.4 WAR, slightly better than what former Cub Cole Hamels is expected to do over 50% more innings. That comes under the assumption that Mills will be a long reliever and swing starter, but he may well have the stuff to be a legit rotation piece.
Included among Brendan Miller’s Cubs pitching trends to watch in 2020 were some intriguing stats on Mills, along with some very solid comps. Then there’s the note of a very even pitch distribution with enough offerings to consistently work longer outings.
Mills’ K/9 hovered around 8.0 over the last two years with Triple-A Iowa, but the 28-year-old owns an impressive 10.83 K/9 in 57 MLB innings. That latter number isn’t necessarily fluky, as he owns an equally impressive ~27% whiff rate with the Cubs. Baseball Savant is also bullish on the Cubs righty, comparing him to Phillies ace Aaron Nola, White Sox top prospect Dylan Cease, and lefty ace Hyun-Jin Ryu based on pitch and hitting profiles.
The potential Cubs starter throws five pitches — four-seamer, two-seamer, curve, slider, and change — with relatively equal distribution, suggesting he has the capacity to get through an MLB lineup multiple times. But I’ll be monitoring the really nice 69 mph curveball he threw almost 100 times last year.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though. That 90 mph fastball isn’t blowing anyone away and you’d like to see the change show up like it has in the past in order to neutralize lefties, so there are some concerns about his viability in a larger sample. But his painfully obvious platoon splits with the Cubs in 2019 obscure the fact that Mills actually has a very solid change and has pitched to relatively even or reverse splits over the last several years.
What I’m driving at here, and have driven toward in the past, is the idea that Mills could be the solution to the payroll riddle the Cubs seem to be trying to solve. They’ll be happy to tell you their utter lack of spending was not a matter of trying to get under the $208 million competitive balance tax threshold, but because there were no magic free agents out there on the market. Sure, Jan.
While depleting what is already pretty thin rotation depth would be a risky gambit, it’s no more bold than running back roughly the same roster — if not significantly diminished — that ran out of gas in two straight seasons. Making Mills a regular starter might mean parting with either Tyler Chatwood or José Quintana, either of whom would effectively get the Cubs under the CBT for the time being. Once the regular season starts, however, the proration of their respective salaries means less relief for the bottom line.
There’s also the notion that the Cubs keep everyone and Mills effectively bumps Chatwood, the presumed fifth starter at this point, back to the bullpen. The spin doctor’s stuff played very well there last season as he really let the fastball eat, and Mills seems like a guy who’s better suited to a starting role. But, again, I can’t help but believe money is a factor.
It’s silly to think that the Cubs really need to worry about such things, yet here we are wondering if they’ll hang around into July and have to move pieces because they aren’t willing to add. If the tax penalties and potential forfeiture of revenue-sharing windfalls are indeed fueling the Cubs’ austerity, and good luck convincing me that’s not the case, there’s no way they’ll be willing to make a splash at the deadline.
So if it’s a case of cutting more salary now and making due or competing in a weak division before having to cut off their nose to spite their face, I say give me the damn knife posthaste. Between Mills, Adbert Alzolay, and a cast of characters from the minors that includes Colin Rea and Tyson Miller, it’s not inconceivable that the Cubs could spackle over the hole in the rotation. Hell, they could even make it look like I didn’t angrily punch through the drywall when Derek Holland gave up a grand slam to Bryce Harper.
Just kidding, I wasn’t actually mad about that bomb because I already knew what was going to happen and had moved on to acceptance before the fateful pitch was thrown.
Anyway, the idea here is that Mills could really be a dude for the Cubs. That figures to be as a member of the bullpen at this point, though every new inning that ends without a hit or a run makes me wonder what he could do taking the bump every fifth day.