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Cole Hamels, Alec Mills and the Cubs' short-term rotation picture

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USA TODAY

Cole Hamels, Alec Mills and the Cubs' short-term rotation picture

Just a few weeks after utilizing a six-man rotation, the Cubs are considering dropping back to a four-man starting staff for a bit.

Cole Hamels threw a bullpen Wednesday morning at Wrigley Field and reportedly felt great, but he's still at least a week or so away from returning to the Cubs rotation.

Couple that with the four days off for the All-Star Break last week and regular off-days coming up (three more still in July), the Cubs don't have an actual *need* for a fifth starter more than once between now and Aug. 3, as their four mainstays will be able to go on regular rest.

"We're gonna discuss that internally — things we want to do," pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. "We have the ability to go with a four-man [rotation] for an extended period of time with those off-days."

Hottovy acknowledged a four-man rotation is the Cubs' preference rather than keep Alec Mills in the rotation long-term, but there are many factors to consider.

"Our guys are feeling good, so we don't want to push the envelope with all these off-days and [tell the pitchers], 'you're still gonna be on a five-day rotation,'" Hottovy said. "So we gotta all talk and communicate about how guys are feeling and make that decision."

The Cubs have been cautious with their pitchers coming out of the break, too, given they've all been thrown off their normal rhythms and routines. It's also worth noting that Kyle Hendricks is still working his way back up to full strength after a shoulder injury cost him much of June.

When the Cubs opted to go with a six-man rotation last month, the whole idea was to rest these guys and make sure they're feeling fresh for the second half and down the stretch. The team had a pretty brutal stretch — 52 games in 54 days — before the All-Star Break.

But if everything continues to progress with Hamels and his oblique injury, the Cubs may not need a four-man rotation for long, even if they opt to go that route. 

After Wednesday's bullpen, the Cubs are going to give Hamels a couple days to recover and will plan another bullpen for this weekend (likely Saturday). Just like with Hendricks' recovery, the first bullpen is more for a gauge to see where the guy is at physically and then the second one will be more of a normal routine and getting back into rhythm mechanically, etc.

Following that weekend bullpen, the Cubs don't know yet whether they're going to have Hamels throw a simulated game or go on a rehab assignment as the next step. They'll evaluate all that this weekend and thanks to the regular time off coming up, they know they don't have to push it.

"If he feels good, we also don't want to slow-play Cole Hamels," Hottovy said. "He's a guy we want in the rotation."

The Cubs are off Thursday but then play six straight games and they will need a fifth starter for that stretch (next Tuesday in San Francisco).

As of right now, it sure looks like that guy could be Mills, who rebounded nicely after a rough first inning during Tuesday night's victory. 

Mills — a 27-year-old right-hander — has only pitched 11 career games in the big leagues, but he's been a nice depth option for the Cubs the last couple years. Including Tuesday night, he has a 4.13 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 29 strikeouts in 24 big-league innings for the Cubs the last two seasons.

"I have a lot of confidence [in him]," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's definitely a big-league caliber pitcher. I don't think he's a 4-A guy; I think he's more than that. He just needs opportunity."

Both Maddon and Hottovy mentioned Mills' last start with the Cubs last August when he gave up a first-inning grand slam to the Mets before settling in to throw 4+ innings of solid ball from there.

Tuesday night, Mills got two quick outs (thanks in large part to Albert Almora Jr.'s defense) and then served up a solo homer to Eugenio Suarez, who absolutely kills the Cubs. From there, it was back-to-back hit batters and then a groundball basehit that went right to where third baseman Kris Bryant would've been standing had he not broke for the bag to cover on a steal attempt.

Mills was inches away from getting out of the first inning with only 1 run allowed, but he also only eventually escaped the jam when Almora threw a runner out at home plate on a double off the wall — or else there could've been even more damage.

After that, Mills held the Reds scoreless for the next five innings to notch the first quality start of his career.

"He regrouped well," Hottovy said. "Millsy's a pro. The guy's been mostly a minor-league guy, but I still consider him kind of one of those veteran guys. He's smart, he's poised. He comes in after that inning and he's like, 'Yeah, I thought I did this well, I didn't do this well.' And then we talked through it and he's able to wipe it clean and then reset. 

"It was such a good job by him to be able to do that with a good hitting team — to come back and set the tone. It's easy to have that inning and then kinda let things keep escalating. He was able to go right back down the next inning and shut 'em down and that really set the tone."

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

How you evaluate Cole Hamels’ 2019 performance depends on which half of the season you look at.

Hamels was the Cubs’ most reliable starting pitcher through June, putting his name firmly in the conversation to make the All-Star Game. Through his first 17 starts, he held a 2.98 ERA, with 97 strikeouts and 35 walks in 99 2/3 innings.

That 17th start – June 28 against the Reds – represented a turning point for the left-hander, however. After throwing one warmup pitch ahead of the second inning, Hamels took a beeline for the Cubs’ dugout, exiting the game with a left oblique strain.

Hamels quickly detecting the strain was key, as he avoided a more significant injury and only missed one month as a result. However, he never got back to his pre-injury level after returning. In 10 starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA, walking 21 batters in 42 innings as opponents slashed .315/.397/.506 against him.

Which of the two pitchers does Hamels more closely resemble at this point? That’s what teams will have to evaluate this offseason, when the soon-to-be 36-year-old lefty hits free agency for the first time in his career.

On top of his oblique strain, Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue. By the time he returned, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention, but he wanted one last chance to show what he’s capable of before free agency.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start of the season. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half - the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

He certainly backed those words up, shutting down the Cardinals – who hadn’t clinched the NL Central yet – in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamels pitched four innings, allowing no runs on just two hits.

Hamels looked stellar in that game, but it doesn’t change the fact that returning from an extended injury absence isn’t easy on pitchers. They need time to regain command of their pitches, plus any amount of arm strength lost during their time on the shelf.

Hamels made two rehab starts at Triple-A before rejoining the Cubs on Aug. 3. He was determined not to return too quickly, as he did so with the Rangers in 2017 after straining his right oblique. That wound up negatively affecting him the rest of the season.

Still, maybe one or two more rehab starts this time around would’ve served him well, though he felt that he could compete at the majors without his best stuff. Plus, it’s not like he was guaranteed to find his groove again by pitching in more minor league games.

Results are all that matter in the big leagues, however, and they show that while the Cubs starting rotation was okay, it wasn’t the difference maker capable of leading the team to October, as anticipated. Cubs starters finished the season with a 4.18 ERA, 10th in MLB and sixth in the National League.

Hamels’ post-injury woes played into those numbers, and he’s determined to bounce back in 2020 to prove his second half performance was a fluke. His first half showed that he still can pitch at a high-level, but he may not be in the Cubs’ plans for next season, regardless.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the team’s rotation at his end-of-season press conference. “It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well.

“We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Those comments seem to indicate that Hamels won’t be back next season. The Cubs have Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as internal rotation options for 2020 and could look outside the organization for more. Hamels also made $20 million in 2019, so freeing up his salary would help the Cubs address other roster needs.

The Cubs could do a lot worse than having a healthy Cole Hamels in their rotation, though. He’s enjoyed a resurgence since the Cubs acquired him and has had plenty of success against the NL Central and at Wrigley Field overall during his career:

vs. Brewers: 20 starts, 8-5, 3.53 ERA
vs. Cardinals: 17 starts, 5-6, 2.21 ERA
vs. Pirates: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 2.52 ERA
vs. Reds: 20 starts, 11-2 record. 2.30 ERA
at Wrigley Field: 25 starts, 7-4 record, 2.20 ERA

Granted, a large portion of those starts came earlier in his career. But with how competitive the NL Central was in 2019 and will be in 2020, the results can’t be ignored.

“Obviously I do very well at Wrigley, so I hope that’s a consideration - I love to be able to pitch there,” Hamels said about the Cubs possibly re-signing him. “For some reason, it’s just the energy and I’ve mentioned it before, it’s baseball to me. And that’s what I really feed off of and that’s hopefully what they think about.”

But if the Cubs decide to part ways with Hamels, he’ll have his fair share of suitors. The Brewers and Reds each could benefit from adding starting pitching this offseason, and Hamels would bring a ton of experience to two squads that will be competing for postseason spots in 2020.

“Otherwise, I know the other teams in the division are gonna think about it,” Hamels said with a laugh. “If you have to come to Wrigley three different times [as an opponent], I don’t pitch bad there.

“I just want to win. I think that’s it. When you get the taste of it early and then you don’t have it for a while, that’s what you’re striving for. To play this game and in front of sellouts and the energy and the expectation of winning, it’s why I enjoy the game.

“That’s what I want to be able to continue to do for the few years I have left.”

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Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is one step closer to becoming the unquestioned face of Major League Baseball.

For the next year, El Mago will be the cover boy for video-game-playing baseball fans, as Baez announced on his Twitter Monday morning he is gracing the cover of MLB The Show 2020:

On the eve of Game 1 of the World Series, Playstation released a video depicting why they chose Baez as the new face of the game:

Last year's cover featured Bryce Harper, announced before he even signed with the Phillies. 

Baez also joins the likes of Aaron Judge, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz as cover athletes for the PS4 game.

The 26-year-old Baez has become one of the most recognizable figures in the game, playing with a flair and swag that includes mind-bending baserunning maneuvers and impossible defensive plays. 

Case in point:

Baez missed the final month of the 2019 season with a fractured thumb, but still put up 29 homers and 85 RBI while ranking second on the team in WAR. In 2018, he finished second in NL MVP voting while leading the league in RBI (111) and topping the Cubs in most offensive categories. 

Theo Epstein said he never deems any player as "untouchable," but Baez is about as close as it gets for this Cubs team right now. He made the switch to shortstop full time this year and wound up with elite defensive numbers to go along with his fearsome offense and an attitude and mindset the rest of the Cubs hope to emulate.

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