Cubs

Cubs 2020 roster outlook: How Alec Mills fits on Opening Day roster

Cubs 2020 roster outlook: How Alec Mills fits on Opening Day roster

Each day in March, NBC Sports Chicago is previewing one player from the Cubs’ expected 2020 Opening Day roster. Next up is pitcher Alec Mills.

2019 recap

Mills made nine appearances across four big league stints last season. The 28-year-old posted a 2.75 ERA and 1.17 WHIP to go along with a 27.6 K% (MLB average — 23.0) and 7.2 BB% (8.5).

The right-hander performed admirably in four spot starts (2.70 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 20 innings), one coming in a big September series against the Cardinals. Mills tossed 4 2/3 shutout innings, allowing two walks and two hits, though the Cubs’ offense came up short in a 2-1 loss.

Expectations for this seasons’ role

Mills is expected to takeover Tyler Chatwood’s role as the long man in the Cubs bullpen. The two are competing for the final rotation spot but David Ross said earlier this month Chatwood, long the favorite, is still in the lead for the role.

2020 outlook

There is a scenario where Mills wins the fifth rotation spot. Ross told the Chicago Sun-Times’ Gordon Wittenmyer he’s thought of keeping Chatwood in the long relief role he found success in last season.

This way, the Cubs not only have someone who can pitch multiple innings in the bullpen, but one who throws hard. Chatwood’s four-seam fastball averaged 96.3 mph last season, a career-high — which isn’t a coincidence because relievers pitch in short bursts.

Mills doesn’t throw hard — his four-seamer averaged 89.6 mph last season — and is a command pitcher, like Kyle Hendricks. He’s impressed as a starter this spring, allowed one earned run in 7 2/3 innings.

It’s more likely he makes the Opening Day roster as a reliever, but Mills, who’s out of minor league options, has a spot secured. He’ll still provide starting depth in case someone in the Cubs’ rotation gets hurt and will likely receive an occasional start to keep Chatwood and the other starters fresh.

The complete roster outlook series:

1. Cubs hoping Kris Bryant stabilizes leadoff spot in 2020
2. Kyle Hendricks is a steady force in the Cubs' rotation
3. Kyle Schwarber is primed for a breakout 2020 season
4. Tyler Chatwood has chance to rewrite the script in 2020
5. David Bote searching for more offensive consistency in 2020
6. One pitch could hold key to Jose Quintana's 2020 success
7. Albert Almora Jr. looking to rebound behind new swing, refreshed mental state
8. Cubs counting on bounce back season from Craig Kimbrel
9. Javier Báez is indispensable, and the best is yet to come
10. New pitch key to Rowan Wick staving off regression
11. New MLB rule gives Victor Caratini chance for bigger role
12. Daniel Descalso can only improve from last season
13. Ian Happ poised to claim starting center field job
14. Jeremy Jeffress can bounce back in Chicago
15. Lineup adjustment could be key to Jason Heyward's success
16. Anthony Rizzo remains an all-around rock for Chicago
17. Kyle Ryan's versatility key in uncertain bullpen
18. Now is not the time to write off Jon Lester 
19. Willson Contreras' health is critical to team's success

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Cubs' 15 best hitting pitchers since 1900, from Hippo to Zambrano

Cubs' 15 best hitting pitchers since 1900, from Hippo to Zambrano

Seven years ago Saturday, Travis Wood crushed a grand slam in a start against the White Sox, the first by a pitcher at Wrigley Field since 1972. But with the universal DH likely coming to MLB in 2020, the days of seeing Cubs pitchers rake might be gone, at least this season.

Thus, we looked back at some of the Cubs best hitting pitchers since 1900. To qualify, players had to have at least 100 at bats with the Cubs and had to have played at least 90 percent of their games as a pitcher.

15. Rick Sutcliffe — 3 HR, 29 OPS+, .173 BA

Sutcliffe has the second-lowest batting average of any pitcher on this list but he made up for the lack of consistency with a few big moments at the plate. In Game 1 of the 1984 NLCS, he led off the bottom of the third inning with a home run off Eric Show. Sutcliffe also hit three regular season home runs with the Cubs, despite hitting just one in his previous 124 major league at bats.

Sutcliffe’s final home run came in 1988 against the Houston Astros. The pitcher that day? Future Cubs broadcaster Jim Deshaies.

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14. Hippo Vaughn — 3 HR, 39 OPS+, .180 BA

Vaughn won 20 games five times with the Cubs but he could also swing the bat a little bit. He homered three times with the Cubs, and his third and final long ball came off Hall of Fame Cardinals pitcher Jesse Haines in 1921. Vaughn also hit an impressive 21 doubles and posted an OPS+ of 39.

13. Tex Carleton — 3 HR, 40 OPS+, .190 BA

All three of Carleton’s home runs with the Cubs came against the Boston Bees in 1936. Before he joined the Cubs, Carleton (then with the Cardinals) hit a home run off Charlie Root at Wrigley Field in 1933. Carleton hit .190 with a 40 OPS+ during his tenure with Chicago.

12. Lon Warneke — 3 HR, 42 OPS+, .219 BA

Warneke pitched on some very good Cubs teams from 1930-36, reaching the World Series twice (1932 and '35.) He was the only pitcher to win a game for the Cubs in the ‘35 Fall Classic, going 2-0. He also collected a hit on a second inning single in his Game 5 win. He hit three home runs and had a 42 OPS+ in his Cubs career.

11. Jim Bullinger — 3 HR, 54 OPS+, .180 BA

All three of Bullinger’s home runs with the Cubs came on the road, but the first one was special. On June 8, 1992 (in the first game of a doubleheader) Bullinger homered on the first pitch he faced, in his first career major league at bat. Those are the types of moments that earn you a reputation as a good hitting pitcher, and Bullinger lived up to those expectations with a career OPS+ of 54.

10. Pat Malone — 9 HR, 28 OPS+, .200 BA

Malone was a key piece of the Cubs starting rotation from 1928-34 before being traded to the Cardinals. He helped pitch the Cubs to the 1929 World Series but wound up on the losing end of the clinching game, despite doubling to right field in his first at-bat. Four of his nine career home runs came in 1930, when he posted a league-high 20 wins.

9. Charlie Root —11 HR, 28 OPS+, .182 BA

Root played for the Cubs for a long time (1926-41), so it comes as no surprise that no Cubs pitcher since 1900 has more RBIs than him (93). Only three players on this list have more home runs than Root, and he’s one of two players on this list to homer off of another player on this list (Carleton in 1934.) Root also leads all Cubs pitcher with 46 doubles.

8. Jake Arrieta — 5 HR, 30 OPS+, .178 BA

Arrieta homered five times in just 259 career at bats with the Cubs. Only Travis Wood has more home runs in fewer at bats among Cubs pitchers. Arrieta helped himself out at the plate in both of his no-hitters, going 1-for-4 against the Dodgers in 2015 and 2-for-4 against the Reds in 2016. He also famously hit a three-run homer off Madison Bumgarner in the second inning of Game 3 of the 2016 NLDS.

7. Claude Passeau — 12 HR, 36 OPS+, .185 BA

Only two Cubs pitchers (Carlos Zambrano and Fergie Jenkins) have more home runs than Passeau. He was a five-time All-Star with the Cubs, winning 20 games in 1940 and finishing in the top-10 in MVP voting in 1942. Passeau had four seasons with at least two home runs from the plate. He also hit 20 doubles and three triples during his time with the Cubs.

MORE: How the Cubs became unwilling symbols in union's fight against MLB owners

6. Pete Alexander — 6 HR, 53 OPS+, .230 BA

Alexander is a Hall of Fame pitcher with 373 wins and five ERA titles to his name, but he was also a solid hitter. He homered 11 times in his MLB career, six times as a Cub. He’s one of two pitchers on this list to hit a walk-off homer. Alexander finished his MLB career with 378 hits and a .209 average.

5. Paul Minner — 6 HR, 58 OPS+, .221 BA

Minner was a consistent member of the Cubs starting rotation from 1950-56. The left-hander finished his Cubs career with 64 complete games, but he could also swing the bat. He hit six home runs and posted a 58 OPS+ with the Cubs. The Cubs didn't post a winning season during his tenure, but Minner hit at least one home run in every season from 1950-54.

4. Travis Wood — 7 HR, 50 OPS+, .197 BA

Wood is the only player on this list with a grand slam on his resume. He’s also one of just three players listed here to hit a home run in the playoffs (2016). Considering Wood pitched 200 innings just once during his Cubs career, it’s astounding he wound up with seven homers. Just imagine the long ball totals he would have if he were a consistent member of the starting rotation. Wood is also easily the best left fielder of this bunch.

3. Tony Kaufmann — 8 HR, 70 OPS+, .243 BA

Kaufmann was a Chicago native who pitched for the Cubs from 1921-27. He has the highest OPS+ of any Cubs pitcher in franchise history (70) and also hit eight home runs with 20 additional extra-base hits in his career. His .243 average is the second-best among Cubs pitchers with at least 100 at-bats since 1900. He homered twice in the same game on the Fourth of July in 1925 against the Cardinals.

2. Fergie Jenkins — 13 HR, 23 OPS+, .165 BA

Jenkins is one of just five Cubs pitchers ever to homer twice in the same game, which he pulled off on Sept. 1, 1971 against Montreal. His first career home run actually came in his Cubs debut against Don Sutton and the Dodgers on April 23, 1966. Fergie notched his first Cubs win, first Cubs strikeout, first career hit and first career home run all in the same day (and it was a relief appearance.)

Jenkins is the only player on this list to take two Hall of Famers deep (Sutton and Tom Seaver.) His 13 home runs and 85 RBIs both rank second in franchise history among pitchers since 1900.

1. Carlos Zambrano — 23 HR, 64 OPS+, .241 BA

Zambrano has more home runs than any pitcher in Cubs franchise history (23) and finished with a career OPS+ of 64. The list of pitchers Big Z took deep is impressive by any hitter’s standards: Tom Glavine, Roy Oswalt, Mark Buerhle, Johnny Cueto and Aaron Harang, just to name a few.

In 2006, the same season he finished fifth in Cy Young voting, Zambrano smashed six home runs and earned his first of three Silver Slugger awards. His .395 slugging percentage is the highest of any Cubs pitcher since 1900 (with a minimum of 100 at bats.) Zambrano finished his career with a .718 OPS against lefties. That’ll play.

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How two Wrigley Field seats found a home in NASCAR driver Kurt Busch's yard

How two Wrigley Field seats found a home in NASCAR driver Kurt Busch's yard

Kurt Busch carried a cup of coffee to his back yard last Thursday, his eyes scanning the lake just beyond his putting green. He headed toward a pair of green stadium seats, numbered 107 and 108.

The previous weekend, Busch had finished third in NASCAR’S first race since the coronavirus shutdown. But when Busch returned to Darlington Raceway a few days later, he skidded to a 15th place finish. The next morning, it was time to decompress in his retired Wrigley Field seats.

“Those are my inspiration chairs,” Busch told NBC Sports Chicago.

Last week, NASCAR became one of the first American sports to return from the coronavirus pandemic hiatus. Busch has been posting race updates since then, but one Twitter video stood out: a shot of his Wrigley field seats.

“I felt compelled to show everybody a bit more of my daily life after a race,” Busch said, “and my Wrigley Field chairs have always been my place of relaxation.”

As for how the seats came to be in his back yard in the first place, the short version is, they were a gift from Busch’s friend Steve Farmer three years ago. But that explanation doesn’t do the whole story justice.

Busch grew up in Las Vegas, but he had family ties to the Chicago suburbs. When Busch got home from middle and high school, and his parents were still at work, he’d position himself in front of the television, flipping through his family’s limited channels.

“Soap opera,” he said, miming the routine. “Soap opera. Soap opera. Cubs game. Something else. And I’m like, well, these Cubs must be good. They’re on TV every day.”

Busch’s fandom blossomed thanks to that TV, but he was in his 20s when he experienced his first game at Wrigley Field. Busch and a friend circled a Brewers game in between races. Next step, picking their seats.

“I want a cheap ticket,” Busch said, “I want to work my way up. I know I’m going to be coming back to Wrigley many a time.”

They arrived early, in time for a half-priced beer, and headed to the bleachers.

“Just walking up those steps,” Busch said, “and just stopping right at the top and hearing the organ play, batting practice was going on, I melted. It was one of the most iconic feelings that I’ll always remember.”

Busch’s prediction came true; he did come back to Wrigley frequently. Eventually Farmer, an Illinois native, would join him on some of those trips, most memorably during the 2015 NLCS. Busch and Farmer first bonded through their Cubs fandom, and now they’ve been friends for over a decade.

“He had a mission too,” Farmer said. “He wanted to go see all the Major League Baseball stadiums, and he always tried to do it where he could get in when the Cubs were playing.”

The Cubs organization embraced Busch. He led the 7th inning stretch in 2011, doing his best Harry Caray impression as he sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” In 2017, Busch brought the Daytona 500 trophy to Spring Training, and the Cubs invited him to take part in batting practice.

Even after working his way up, both in seat location and connection to the organization, Busch held onto his first experience in the bleachers. Whenever he takes someone to their first Wrigley Field game, he instructs them to take it all in: the smells, the sounds, the feeling. Pause at the top of the stands, even if it means being the “obnoxious fan” who people have to maneuver around.

Busch sits somewhere different every time he goes to Wrigley, he said. The best seat? Five rows up, behind home plate, for Game 5 of the 2016 World Series.

“It was the most epic feeling ever,” Busch said. “Even if I was in section 400, I was just there. … I don’t know how I’m ever going to be able to top that.”

Busch also had the opportunity to see Game 7 in person. But instead, he stayed home with his soon-to-be wife. It was the middle of the week, and Busch was preparing for a race. But his jeweler was also scheduled to deliver the couple’s wedding bands that day.

“I felt 100 percent confident that the Cubs were going to win it without me there,” Busch said. “… and (with) that symbolic value of commitment, of letting the Cubs do their thing and showing love to my wife, that I did my part to bring home that Game 7 win.”

Later, Ashley Busch surprised her husband with a Cubs World Series ring.

Kurt and Ashley were married on Jan. 7, 2017, a date that would come to mind when Farmer asked Busch which Wrigley Field seats he'd be interested in.

“What do you get the guy that’s got everything?” Farmer said.

The answer came thanks to Wrigley Field renovations. The Cubs put retired seat sets up for sale in 2017, and season ticket holders had a chance to purchase them before the general public. Farmer had a friend who was a lifelong season ticket holder.

Busch put in some thought before choosing the perfect pair of seats: 107, for his wedding anniversary and 108 for 108 years between Cubs World Series victories.

“There’s a lot of energy within those chairs,” Busch said. 

This Memorial Day Weekend, Busch channeled that energy into a strong start. After visiting his Wrigley chairs during the week, Busch won the pole position for the Coca-Cola 600, his first pole at Charlotte Motor Speedway.