In a normal offseason, the Cubs trading a somewhat highly regarded prospect such as Donnie Dewees to the Royals for Alec Mills wouldn’t have gone under the radar as much as it seemingly did, but in this post-Cubs winning the World Series universe that we’re living in, minor trades have a way of feeling less important. As a Cubs fan, being World Series Champions is a brand new feeling and it’s hard not to get drunk on it.
It’s time to sober up though because with spring training upon us, the party is officially over for this Cubs team. While us fans can party on in perpetuity for the Cubs winning the World Series, the actual team gets the honor of trying to follow that up with another championship. Luckily, it’s the job of the greatest sports executive of all time, Theo Epstein, to figure out how to continue this club’s run of excellence, and the acquisition of Alec Mills seems like a classic Cubs move. (I love that I can say that)
Here’s Baseball America’s first write-up on Mills from their 2016 Prospect Handbook where they ranked him as the Royals No. 12 prospect, giving him a grade of 45 (on the 40-80 scouting scale) with medium risk:
A walk-on at Tennessee-Martin who became a pro prospect when his fastball jumped from 85 mph to 90-plus, Mills quickly shook off the rust from his 2013 Tommy John surgery to hit his spots with four pitches in a solid season at high Class A Wilmington. Mills’ combination of plus control and ability to mix his pitches fits very well in Wilmington’s spacious park. Mills will sit 90-92 and touch 94 regularly with his fastball and his changeup is a plus offering with 12-15 mph separation from his fastball (wow). His slider and curveball both are average on good nights. Mills throws slightly across his body (similar to Jake Arrieta, and new acquisition Eddie Butler), which adds a little deception. He projects as a fast-moving back-of-the-rotation starter.
Fastball in the low 90’s, good changeup, plus control and ability to mix his pitches. So far pretty similar to Hendricks, but beyond the initial scouting report there’s still a lot of work to be done for Mills to be anywhere near Hendricks’ level as a pitcher. Here’s the first and only time Kyle Hendricks appeared in the Baseball America Prospect Handbook, in the 2014 edition where he ranked No. 11 in the Cubs system, and was given a similar grade to Mills of 45, with low risk:
Hendricks’ fastball touched 95 mph in his Ivy League days, but as a pro he’s settled in as a command-oriented starter who relies on his feel for pitching, a good changeup, and ability to locate his fastball. He mostly pitches in the 85-92 range, reading hitters’ swings and disrupting their timing. Hendricks throws his changeup to all hitters and has shown the ability to pitch to the inside and outside corners and down with both his fastball and change. He throws both a slider and a curve, both fringe-average, and most scouts prefer the curve, which he throws with some power in the upper 70s. Some scouts give Hendricks 70 control grades.
It’s pretty incredible how spot-on Baseball America was with that scouting report, and it’s also similar in many ways to their first scouting report on Alec Mills. Size wise the two pitchers again compare favorably, with Hendricks at 6-3, 190 and Mills at 6-4, 190. After an impressive Double A showing in 2016 that included a 2.39 ERA, 9.0 K/9 and 1.02 WHIP, here’s how Baseball America updated their scouting report for the 2017 handbook which kept the same grade of 45 with medium risk:
Mills has spent his career proving people wrong (immediately one thinks of Hendricks)…Scouts generally don’t get excited when they see a pitcher like Mills, who throws an average 90-93 mph fastball with sink and bore, an above-average changeup and a fringe-average curve and slider. What makes it all work is Mills’ ability to stay away from the middle of the strike zone and the sweet spot of bats with above-average control (they are literally SCREAMING Kyle Hendricks name here). He’s a fast worker who pitches down in the zone and on the corners. His lack of an outpitch requires him to hit his spots, but when Mills is on, his fastball rarely arrives above the knees. Mills is a No. 5 starter or low-leverage reliever who could pitch in the big leagues in 2017.
While no one wants to hear “No. 5 starter or low-leverage reliever” it’s hard not to dream about the potential for Mills to make a Kyle Hendricks-like leap into the middle of the Cubs rotation.
Mills put up excellent stats at Double A last year, but that was only half of the story. Upon arrival at Triple A Omaha in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League, Mills’ stats ballooned to a 4.19 ERA, 8.4 K/9 and 1.40 WHIP. His FIP was even worse than his ERA, at 4.74 which was due to a massive increase in home runs allowed, going from 0.27 HR/9 in Double A to 1.24 HR/9 at Triple A.
It doesn’t sound like Mills’ control is quite on par with Hendricks, and beyond the physical abilities of the two, Kyle Hendricks is a unique pitcher and much of his success is due to his preparation, and what’s going on between his ears when he’s up on the mound. The hope then for every Cubs fan is that Mills makes his way into the Cubs clubhouse and becomes BFF with Hendricks. He should mirror everything Hendricks does, pick his brain relentlessly to the point that Hendricks has to ask him for some alone time.
While it’s unlikely that Alec Mills will have the type of MLB success that Hendricks has achieved, coming up a little bit short of “The Professor” would be no small consolation.
Mills received his first spring action on Tuesday, going two innings with zero walks, zero strikeouts and three hits allowed. He will likely report to Triple A camp soon, and hopefully can show improvement in the PCL this year while he waits for an opportunity to come in Chicago.
For now, Alec, please go buy Kyle Hendricks a nice steak dinner, maybe go to a movie afterwards and get to know each other better.