The Cubs made a seemingly-minor move on Wednesday, trading outfielder and 2015 second-round pick Donnie Dewees to the Royals for right-handed pitcher Alec Mills. In doing so, the Cubs made a savvy move that improves their pitching depth and flexibility in 2017 at the cost of an outfield prospect who likely had no future in the Cubs major-league plans.
Mills was the Royals' 14th-best prospect according to Baseball America and Dewees was the Cubs’ 12th, according to the same outlet (and me as well). So on that level, this is a pretty even trade. But Mills is a pitcher who already has major-league experience and is ready to contribute in 2017 while Dewees was still a few seasons away from the big leagues. Thus, the deal makes a lot of sense for a Cubs team that is looking to repeat as champions in 2017. But I’d argue that the deal makes sense for the Cubs in several more ways than that.
We asked Max Rieper over at Royals Review for his take on Mills.
Alec Mills was a 22nd round pick in 2012 out of the University of Tennessee-Martin, where he had to walk-on after getting no scholarship offers. He has generally put up very good numbers in the minor leagues, but has never been considered a top prospect, even in a thin system like the Royals. However, he has a high floor and a decent chance to become a back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher or even a decent middle relief option.
Despite velocity in the low 90s, he has consistently struck out a hitter-per-inning in the minor leagues with pretty good walk rates. He really burst onto the scene in 2015, when he struck out 111 hitters to just 14 walks. That was in a very pitcher-friendly environment in Wilmington, Delaware, but Mills continued to put up similar numbers in the higher minors. Before last season, John Sickels ranked Mills as the 19th-best prospect in the Royals system, a C+ grade, writing that his secondary stuff was "inconsistent" but that he throws strikes.
Mills excelled in 12 starts for AA Northwest Arkansas before being promoted to Omaha and posting a 4.19 ERA with a healthy strikeout rate. He got a cup of coffee with the Royals at the end of last year in which he was unimpressive, but he put himself on the radar as a potential option for the 2017 season.
The ZIPS projection system was very high on Mills going into this year, projecting a 4.27 ERA in 105 innings with 1.2 WAR. He did undergo Tommy John surgery early in his career, back in 2013, but has been generally healthy since then. He throws four pitches - fastball, slider, curveball, change - although none are plus pitches.
"I would like to improve on a breaking ball that I can lean on when I need it. Haven’t really had a good wipeout pitch recently that I’ve been able to lean on."
The Cubs are getting another decent rotation options who could perhaps help out the bullpen this year. Mills doesn't have a ton of upside, but he is a decent bet to give you some passable Major League innings this year, and considering the Cubs would like to defend their title, that is probably what the Cubs need right now.
What I’ve read from other sources agrees with this. Pretty much every scouting report on Mills says he throws strikes. His fastball is only a little above-average and his changeup is his best pitch. His breaking pitches are slightly below-average. But the remarkable thing about all of his pitches is that he can locate them in the zone. This is a scouting profile of a back-of-the-rotation starter. It’s also a profile that should be very familiar to everyone around here because it’s close to exactly what we were saying about Kyle Hendricks in the minor leagues. Now we cannot, and should not, expect Mills to end up as good as Hendricks. There was a reason everyone expected Hendricks to be a No.4/No. 5 starter and it’s not just "scouts are dumb." (They’re not.) But the point is that the Cubs have had success in the past working with a pitcher in Mills’ mold and they likely think they can do so again, if maybe not with quite so much success.
On top of that, Mills brings a couple of other off-field advantages that meet the Cubs needs right now. It’s no secret that the Cubs are looking for starting pitching depth to fill the void left by Jason Hammel. Mike Montgomery is going to get the first crack at that job, but Brett Anderson, Eddie Butler and now Mills are going to be there in case Montgomery falters. Maybe Kevin Tapani is back on the team competing for that fifth starter job too. I have trouble keeping track of all the pitching moves the front office has made this winter.
On top of that, Mills has the flexibility to either start or relieve, depending on where the Cubs will need help. Mills also provides the kind of roster flexibility that the Cubs will need in 2016. Mills still has two options left, so he can ride the Des Moines/O’Hare shuttle all season long as necessary. On top of that, he makes the major-league minimum, giving the Cubs some payroll flexibility down the stretch as well.
In exchange for that, the Cubs gave up an outfielder in Dewees who can hit and who can fly. But there are things that Dewees can’t do that mean he was never likely to end up in the Cubs long-term plans. Dewees’ defense is below-average in center field. Maybe he will be able to improve on that as he moves up the minors, but if he has to move to a corner, he’d be a corner outfielder without power. Dewees also has a below-average arm, so he’d likely have to play left field. No matter how much a guy hits and runs, it’s hard to justify a left fielder without power in today’s game.
Several analysts have termed this trade as the Cubs giving up more upside to get a player who has a higher floor and is major-league ready. That’s about right. If you read that the Royals got the better player in this deal (and I have read that), that might not be wrong. But the Cubs made a savvy move to make their team better this season and potentially for years to come. For the 2017 Cubs, a bird in the hand really is better than two in the bush.