Mills struggles, but is part of rotation's future

September 22nd, 2021

CHICAGO -- Part of attempting to avoid a lengthy rebuild for the Cubs will be constructing a sound rotation. That is an obvious area of need that will be atop the team's list this coming offseason.

Sitting inside the Cubs' dugout ahead of Tuesday's 9-5 loss to the Twins at Wrigley Field, manager David Ross was asked which starters currently in the fold would be considered "penciled" in for the '22 staff.

"That's a good question," Ross said. "I would definitely pen in Kyle Hendricks. I think has made a pretty strong case for a guy that you can count on and a reliable starter."

That is where Ross' list ended in terms of forecasting who might already have a home in next year's Opening Day rotation. From there, Chicago will be in the market for a starter or two, and then will fill things out with some internal options.

Mills took the hill in Tuesday’s loss, but his recent struggles persisted in the opener loss to the Twins. Nick Gordon tagged the righty for a two-run homer in the fourth as the final blow as he was charged with seven runs (six earned) over four innings.

The main in-house candidates are Adbert Alzolay, along with rookies Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson. All three have flashed impressive arsenals this year both as starters and relievers, but with mixed results. Alzolay (part of the Opening Day rotation to start the year) has a 5.16 ERA in 21 starts. Steele has a 5.12 ERA in seven starts, while Thompson has a 6.08 ERA through five turns in the rotation.

"Maybe one of those three guys can fit in there somewhere," Ross said. "The experience they've gained this year, and having an offseason to work on things, and coming in and making an impression will be a nice thing we'll have going into next year's Spring Training."

The rotation certainly did not pan out the way the Cubs hoped going into this season.

Hendricks (signed through '23 with a team option for '24) provided his valuable veteran leadership, but has also posted a career-high 4.81 ERA. Zach Davies (5.49 ERA in 31 starts) has struggled and will be a free agent.

Jake Arrieta's reunion with the Cubs was forgettable and his recent stay with the Padres ended with him being designated for assignment on Tuesday. Trevor Williams made a dozen inconsistent starts and was traded to the Mets at the Trade Deadline.

It has all added up to 730 innings through 151 games, putting the Cubs on pace to log the fewest starting innings in a 162-game season in team history. The current low was 877 innings by the 2006 Cubs.

In a perfect world, the Cubs would get more innings out of their rotation. If that is not feasible with the cast in place, Ross said he needs to better deploy the arms he does have at his disposal. That could include featuring multi-inning relief arms again next year.

"Starting pitching's definitely important. Pitching depth," Ross said. "If you don't have true starters, you can find depth in other areas. And that's a front office, where you find the value and where all that is. Starting pitching's really expensive.”

The 29-year-old Mills was one of those long-relief arms to start this season, following being used exclusively as a starter in 2020. The righty struggled out of the bullpen, but found a rhythm once he rejoined the rotation full-time in June.

In his first 11 starts back in the rotation from that point, Mills fashioned a 3.35 ERA for the Cubs. Things have not been as smooth of late, though. His four-inning outing against Minnesota gave the right-hander a 6.34 ERA in his last six turns. Mills said he has felt fine mechanically and physically -- positives as he closes out his first full big league campaign.

“That's a good thing,” Mills said. “We kind of got through this year, obviously with last year the shortened year and this year all the way back to 162. … The last few haven't been what I've hoped for, but let's finish on a strong note, and kind of be a cornerstone maybe for what's going to happen next year.”

There could be value in having a strike-thrower like Mills as part of a rotation led by Hendricks and another top-tier arm. And Chicago will hope some of the younger pitchers can keep taking steps forward as core pieces, with some unexpected contributions along the way, too.

"That's the secret of every organization," Ross said, "is finding those hidden gems and coupling those with the Minor Leaguers or the guys in your organization that you already have, or guys that you feel like you're going to need."