Before last offseason, I wrote about the way that Theo Epstein-led front offices tend to go about acquiring relief pitchers. The conclusion was that, somewhat surprisingly, these front offices almost never sign high-priced free agent relievers, instead electing to acquire them through trade or from the minor leagues. And the Cubs have stuck to this pattern this year: They traded for both Aroldis Chapman and, now, Wade Davis, instead of electing to pay someone like Kenley Jansen or Mark Melancon in a long-term free agent deal. They only use free agency to cheaply supplement their ‘pen: Koji Uehara and Brian Duensing are examples of this from this offseason. For all the mystery around exactly how the Cubs seem to build a strong bullpen by the end of every season, the patterns around their process are actually fairly clear.
The same was true in their minor league development over the past several seasons, and they’ve admitted as much. The Cubs tend to devote their highest picks and biggest bonuses to relatively non-risky hitters, and they sign and acquire pitchers in the low minors by volume. As the logic goes, pitchers are much more volatile, but if two or three of these lottery tickets hit, the Cubs will be set up for years going forward. We’ve already seen some examples of this: Kyle Hendricks was acquired along with Christian Villanueva for the aging Ryan Dempster, and now we’ve seen what he has become. And, along with Hendricks, there’s Jake Arrieta—the example that illustrates this point almost too well.
This offseason, we’re seeing this pattern increasingly take hold in the upper minor leagues and even the majors. As established, young, controllable starters have become rarer and more expensive over the past few years, the Cubs have turned to the same volume approach that they have been using in the lower minors. This line of thinking has seen them sign Brett Anderson, Seth Frankoff, and Casey Kelly in the last few weeks, while trading for Eddie Butler and, most recently, Alec Mills. All of these pitchers provide some upside that, if realized, could contribute very meaningfully to the Cubs in 2017, and, with the exception of Anderson, into the future.
We wrote up Butler last week, but Mills, 25, is another excellent example of a depth pitcher on the brink of something more—the type of pitcher that the Cubs have made a point of acquiring over the last several years. A control-type guy, there are very few red flags in any of the stats that he’s produced in the minor leagues. After being drafted in the 22nd round in 2012 and undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2013 (this is probably the biggest red flag), he produced two consecutive years of excellent minor league statistics.
In 21 starts at High-A in 2015, he put up an 8:1 K:BB ratio, with nearly a strikeout an inning. He produced a 3.02 ERA, but his DRA was 1.73 (!), and his cFIP was 66 (expected to be 34 percent better than league average going forward). And at Double-A last year, he produced an even-more-startling 1.21 DRA in 12 starts, before being promoted to Triple-A Omaha. At Omaha, he pitched to a less intriguing 4.74 ERA, but his DRA was 3.15, and he continued to strike out nearly a batter an inning. A knock on Mills is that he hasn’t been much of a groundball pitcher to this point in his career, and that might have hurt his results in offense-friendly Omaha last year, but long story short, this is a legitimate MLB-ready starting pitching prospect, who the Cubs now have under control until 2022.
Mills got a (three and one-third innings) cup of coffee as a reliever with the Royals in 2016, so we have 140 pitches worth of Pitch F/x data. From this small sample (so, remember there are big error bars) we learn that he averages 93 mph on his fastball and what Brooks Baseball characterizes as a sinker (I’d bet he’d call this a two-seamer). He also features a changeup (80 mph), curveball (78 mph), and slider (80 mph). This is a mix that won’t overpower hitters, but with the right command does have the potential to be very effective. A comparison that will unavoidably be made both on the basis of his minor league success and his pitch mix is Kyle Hendricks, and I’m not going to tell you that the comparison is totally unwarranted. Here is some video of Mills on the mound:
Established pitching has proved to be too expensive, but unestablished MLB-ready pitching is… still kind of expensive. Mills cost Donnie Dewees, who is a legitimate prospect that BP recently placed just outside the Cubs’ top ten. Dewees, though, seems unlikely to top out as more than a good fourth outfielder, and this is the sort of prospect who the Cubs can afford to purchase a lottery ticket with. For the Cubs, Mills seems like another excellent choice.
The back of the Cubs’ rotation is still a bit cloudy, but, in very short order, the Cubs have acquired a stable of pitchers who could provide value in 2017 and in the future. None of them are at all likely to be the next Arrieta, but any of them could be a controllable solid starter for the next few years—something the Cubs are desperately in need of. Like they always have in the bullpen, the Cubs have used a repeatable, low-risk, low-cost pattern to give themselves a good chance at finding some long-term rotation help in an offseason when it wasn’t available in abundance. And they’ll need it if they are going to build that dynasty everyone has been talking about.
Lead photo courtesy Denny Medley—USA Today Sports