When Alec Mills made his major league debut against the Cincinnati Reds on Friday, it was generally assumed to be a spot start while the Chicago Cubs awaited the return of left-hander Mike Montgomery.
But after five strong innings – including a stretch where he retired 14 hitters in a row – the right-hander Mills may have something to say about his place in the rotation.
The Chicago Cubs have faced questions about their starting pitching all year. From Yu Darvish‘s injuries to the struggles of Tyler Chatwood (leading to his demotion) and the frustrating inconsistencies of Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. But as they prepare for the final month of the regular season, Mills could be a crucial ingredient in Chicago’s preparation for the postseason.
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The 26-year-old posted a 5-12 record with a 4.84 ERA at Triple-A Iowa, but Cubs fans are going to see if he can follow up his fantastic debut when he gets the ball against the Mets on Wednesday.
Although Montgomery is set to return and make a start on Thursday against the Braves as part of a modified six-man rotation, Mills’ continued success could see the big lefty head back to the bullpen. This could produce a domino effect that could have major implications for the Cubs come October.
Chicago is razor-thin in terms of left-handed pitching in the bullpen. After the best year of his career last season, Brian Duensing has imploded in 2018 amidst a swarm of injuries and poor performances. Justin Wilson has had a nice bounceback year, but has just five postseason innings under his belt and seems to be lower on the totem pole in terms of guys that Joe Maddon wants to take the ball in the middle and later innings.
Randy Rosario has filled in nicely, and Jorge De La Rosa has been solid since coming over from Arizona. But again, they lack a proven track record of postseason experience. The Cubs will likely maintain a four-man rotation in the playoffs, so Montgomery will undoubtedly return to the bullpen to bolster their left-handed depth and add an arm with nearly 20 postseason innings under his belt.
Whether that is sooner or later, however, could depend on Mills. Maddon may decide to stick to a six-man rotation even if the young right-hander throws another quality game on Wednesday. But a run of good starts could also allow Maddon to immediately insert Montgomery back into the bullpen so he can get acclimated pitching in the later innings and more adequately prepare for his role in the postseason.
No matter what Maddon decides, good performances from Mills offers a slew of options for the pitching staff in the final month. That is certainly a good problem to have for the best team in the National League.