Alec Mills

Cubs camp observations: Wrigley's home-field advantage without fans

Cubs camp observations: Wrigley's home-field advantage without fans

Four days into the Cubs’ training camp restart, we’ve only begun to get acquainted with the new normal of baseball rhythms and routines that we can only hope will result in a 2020 season of 60 games.

If the league can fix some of its early testing issues and keep enough players on enough teams healthy enough to start the season, what might come into play for the Cubs and the actual baseball season?

Early observations after about a dozen Zoom sessions with team personnel and two intrasquad scrimmages:

NUTS: Home cooked?

The Cubs, who draw so reliably in one of the unique ballparks in the majors, might have more to lose than most teams without fans allowed to attend games when the season starts July 24.

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Just how much of the Confines’ home-field advantage is lost will be a matter of “wait-and-see,” manager David Ross said.

“There’s always an advantage to playing in your own park,” he said Sunday. “You feel more comfortable you woke up in your own bed. You’re not staying in a hotel room, which especially now, where you feel like outside spaces just aren’t comfortable as they used to be, probably [gives] a slight advantage in your city.

“There’s no substitute for fans,” he added. “There’s probably a slight advantage, but I don’t know if it’s as great as it used to be.”

What Ross didn’t mention were the rooftops across Waveland and Sheffield, which are planning to operate at 25-percent capacity when games start, suggesting at least a few hundred fans within cheering and booing distance.

“You’re going to hear them loud and clear, too,” pitcher Tyler Chatwood said. “I promise you that.”

BOLTS: Taking the fifth

All you need to know about Alec Mills’ ability to adjust and immediately step into an important role is what he did in an emergency start against the first-place Cardinals at Wrigley last year with the Cubs a half-game out and barely a week left in the season.

He hadn’t started anywhere in a month — and that was in the minors. But the guy who pitched out of the bullpen just three times in the four intervening weeks, pitched two outs deep into the fifth inning that day and didn’t allow a run (the bullpen took care of that, in a loss).

No wonder when Ross talks about Mills replacing the injured Jose Quintana (thumb) in the rotation, he says, “I’ve got a ton of confidence.”

He’s not the only one. “I’ve always had the mindset of doing whatever I can to stay ready and help in any way,” said Mills after pitching a strong three innings in a simulated game Sunday. “Obviously, with an unfortunate injury like this, I think it’s just even more heightened.

“I’m ready to do whatever, whether it needs to be maybe a start here or there, a couple more starts, long guy out of the pen — just whatever I need to do I pride myself on being ready to do that.”

CHATTER: The mask at hand

“It’s a little different. You leave the house with a phone, your keys, your wallet and your mask.”

—Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo on his and his teammates’ new daily normal.

“Everybody is thinking about it, but we try to get here and understand this is our safe zone and we’re trying to create that [within] the things that we’re going to do on and off the field.”

—Ross on players weighing the risk of playing during the pandemic against the safety precautions and protocols the team has built in and around its Wrigley Field bubble.

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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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David Ross names first three probable starting pitchers for spring training games

David Ross names first three probable starting pitchers for spring training games

David Ross is wasting no time when it comes to the competition for the Cubs’ fifth rotation spot.

Alec Mills, Tyler Chatwood and Adbert Alzolay will start the Cubs’ first three spring training games, Ross told reporters in Arizona on Thursday. The three are competing for Cole Hamels' vacated rotation spot, with Colin Rea being an outside candidate.

Chatwood is the favorite to win the job — Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy suggested as much last week. The 30-year-old infamously struggled with his command as a starter in 2018 and was removed from the rotation by season’s end. He bounced back in 2019, working as a long reliever and occasional spot starter.

2018: 5.30 ERA, 8.25 BB/9, 19.6 BB%, 95 BB in 103 2/3 IP
2019: 3.76 ERA, 4.34 BB/9, 11.4 BB%, 37 BB in 76 2/3 IP

Mills impressed in limited big-league action last season, sporting a 2.75 ERA (4.19 FIP) in nine games (4 starts). He stepped up big last September in place of an ailing Hamels, tossing 4 2/3 shutout innings in a heartbreaking loss against the Cardinals.

Alzolay made four appearances last season with mixed results in his two starts:

June 25: 4 2/3 IP, 1 H, 1 R/1 ER, 4 BB/4K
July 1: 2 2/3 IP, 10 H, 7 R/7 ER, 1 BB/3K

The 24-year-old missed most of the 2018 minor-league season with a lat strain and his career-high for innings is 120 1/3 (2016). Alzolay views himself as a starting pitcher but wants to help the team any way he can. He also admitted he could have an innings limit, but it depends on how his body feels.

“2018, I got hurt and then last year — including stand up games and all that — I probably got 200 innings,” Alzolay said last month. “Probably won’t throw more than [that in 2020]. Probably [have some limitations]. We’ll see. To me, if I’m feeling good, I feel great and I can keep going, I will.

“My first goal is stay healthy the whole time from here until October. And then just help the team in whatever they need me to do. That’s my whole goal this year.”

Even if Chatwood wins the rotation spot, Mills and Alzolay could make the Opening Day roster as relievers and make at least a few starts this season. Alzolay has minor-league options remaining, so he could also start the year in Triple-A Iowa's rotation.

Mills is out of minor-league options, so he'd be the leading candidate to fill Chatwood's role in the bullpen.

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