These 3 Unheralded Iowa Pitchers Could Have Impact for Cubs Down Stretch
The Cubs haven’t had what you’d call the best luck when it comes to the pitching staff this season, with three members of the rotation spending time on the IL and the bullpen still a work in progress. But that has created opportunities for players from the system, with Adbert Alzolay already assuming the mantle as the organization’s best home-grown arm in the Theo Epstein era.
As the trade deadline approaches, and with a mix of injuries and strategy dictating moves, the Cubs are going to want to see what they’ve got in some other players from the farm. And while none of the pitchers discussed here can rightfully be called “home-grown,” they’re members of the organization who’ve either been traded for or rehabbed from previous issues.
There’s no such thing as too much pitching, so expect the Cubs to give the three guys below a shot in Chicago at some point over the next month or the second half. Whether it’s to showcase them for a trade or to see just how badly they need to seek out external help, at least one of these names could have a real impact.
The only one of the pitchers listed here already on the 40-man roster, the 27-year-old Mills makes a lot of sense as a fill-in. Not only has he pitched for the Cubs in the past — he made two starts in seven appearances last season — but Mills is pitching well for Triple-A Iowa.
Don’t let the 5.18 ERA fool you, he’s really improved of late and is looking like a guy who can provide competent innings for the big club. That ERA was actually at 8.78 in early May and Mills went through a stretch during which he allowed 18 earned runs over four starts. He’s only allowed 11 in his last six starts, though, so that’s good.
He’s not a big strikeout guy and his box-score numbers are pretty gaudy, but Mills would represent minimal roster churn and could help the Cubs with spot-starts or long relief.
Picked up on a minor-league deal this winter, Rea seemed like little more than an organizational depth move for the Cubs at the time. Best known for his central role in a botched trade between the Padres and Marlins near the 2016 deadline, Rea hasn’t pitched in the majors since the day after that whole deal fell apart.
He posted a 7.13 ERA with only a 38 percent grounder rate at Double-A last season, but his ERA dropped to 5.08 and he walked fewer batters with a few more grounders after being bumped up. The home runs skyrocketed, though, and Rea gave up 14 dingers in 75.1 innings (1.67 HR/9) last season while striking out 70 against 36 walks (1.94 K/BB).
With only 63 K’s to 34 walks over 88 innings for Iowa, Rea isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire. But he’s got pretty even splits, skewing slightly better against lefties, and he might even work well in more of a long-relief role. Though he’s not on the 40-man roster, the Cubs have a lot of flexibility there now that Tony Barnette has been placed on the restricted list.
Easily the best story of the group, Hultzen is working his way back after flaming out as the No. 2 overall pick by the Mariners back in 2011. The lefty was drafted between Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, but has failed to achieve either the success or the infamy of those two and has yet to throw a single inning in the majors.
Hardly the first to fall victim to the weight of expectations, the can’t-miss prospect allowed his burden to crush him. Far from simply a mental issue, Hultzen chose to conceal the pain in his shoulder and change his mechanics until things finally got so bad that he was forced to undergo two separate shoulder surgeries. He pitched a combined 18.2 innings from 2014-18, the last 8.2 of which came in the Cubs system last year.
Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic caught up with Hultzen in Iowa recently and has a tremendous piece on the southpaw that is well worth your time. Even if you don’t have a subscription, I think they’re still granting a limited number of free articles per month or something.
Long story short, Hultzen is still working his way back into shape and has only made three appearances for Iowa so far this season. He’s currently dealing with a groin issue that isn’t expected to be serious, so he could be throwing again soon. The key is that he’s touching 97 with his fastball while throwing from a lower arm slot that he believes will keep him healthy.
Hultzen has struck out four batters with just one walk so far, with one hit allowed and one batter hit by a pitch. Hardly proof that he’s all the way back, but if he can maintain that mid-90’s velocity while continuing to pull the string on a changeup that made him an ace in college, the Cubs could have a legit lefty reliever.
That might come in handy if they have reason to part with one of their current lefties, in particular one whose own changeup has failed him so far this season. Mills and Rea are nice options who could patch things over for a while, but Hultzen has the potential to have a more lasting impact. If, that is, he can stay healthy. With a combined 25 appearances over the last seven seasons, that’s far from a given.
Like Rea, Hultzen is not on the 40-man roster and would have to be added prior to a call-up. Again, though, that’s really the least of the Cubs’ worries at this point given the circumstances.
The Cubs have not been good when it comes to developing pitchers, nor have they had much success when it comes to acquiring them via trade. And while neither narrative will be shifted a great deal by the success or failure of these three pitchers, it sure as hell can’t hurt to give them a shot.