With KC Royals pitchers and catchers set to officially report to Surprise for spring training tomorrow, I figured now is a great time to catch up with right-hander Alec Mills.
Mills was added to the Royals 40-man roster this offseason after a solid first full season back from Tommy John surgery (and actual first full season in professional baseball), which was spent at High-A Wilmington.
“My agent and others were very confident in the idea of me being added [to the 40-man roster],” Mills said, “but I was trying to keep a level head about it all.”
What was his first reaction to being added to the 40-man roster?
“It was a great feeling that’s for sure. I think thankful is a good word. Thankful to the front office for giving me a chance. Thankful for being healthy and thankful to my family and friends for being supportive and helpful. Without any of that, I wouldn’t be anywhere.”
Mills was a midseason Carolina League All-Star and went 7-7 with a 3.02 ERA (fourth in the CL) over 21 starts (113.1 innings). Opponents hit .271 against him (just three home runs), he walked just 14, and struck out 111 (fourth in the CL).
“I think I definitely accomplished what I set out to do,” Mills said, regarding his 2015 season with the Blue Rocks. “I had a full, healthy season (mostly) and I pitched the way I know I can. And kind of fought through the bad stretches and rode the highs. It was my first real experience at that long season.”
Mills was off to a great 2013 season with Low-A Lexington (1.59 ERA in 18 games, with 47 strikeouts, just nine walks, and opponents hitting just .172 against him), even earning South Atlantic League All-Star honors. However, he last pitched on June 14th, succumbing to Tommy John surgery and not returning to the mound until a year later with rookie level Idaho Falls.
I had never seen Mills pitch prior to Tommy John surgery, so I was wondering if he was any different now as a pitcher. “I don’t think the difference is drastic,” Mills said. “My changeup kind of took a big leap this last year so naturally I leaned on it a little more, whereas before surgery, I was more a slider guy. And through the process of rehab and that long time off the mound, I think I learned to pitch better than just throw.”
Being added to the 40-man roster means Mills will be in big league camp for the first time. Is he nervous or excited?
“I think I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say both. But I definitely think more excited than anything. It’s a great opportunity that I don’t wanna take for granted.”
“I feel good,” Mills said when I asked how he feels heading to spring training. “Everything feels fresh, mentally ready to get back to season mode.” He has already been throwing, even off the mound a few times before heading to Arizona.
Being a newbie in big league camp means it is a great time to learn from the veterans. Is there one pitcher he would like to pick his brain?
“Man. There’s a lot of guys there that could do nothing but help me develop as a pitcher. I think a lot depends on what kind of pitcher I want to be. I mean, Wade Davis has been the most dominant pitcher in baseball the last two years. There are some veterans like Chris Young and Jason Vargas.” Not bad choices to learn from.
In Baseball America’s 2016 Prospect Handbook, Mills ranks 12th among the Royals top 31 prospects. In the blurb they wrote about him, they see Mills as a possible emergency starter for the Royals by the end of this season.
“Yeah that is a goal of mine,” Mills said in terms of getting to the Majors this season. “It’s the dream of every one of us that plays baseball. But at the end of the season, if I had a successful, healthy season and also feel like I became a better pitcher, than I think that’s a successful year. I am most definitely going to make a push at Kansas City this year.”
In the offseason, Mills gives pitching lessons for kids that go to his old high school. Is it hard to work with high schoolers?
“There’s not many aspects that are tough. They listen pretty well and love the game. The kids that come love pitching so they are trying to become the best possible player they can.”
Being a former walk on at Tennessee-Martin and a 22nd round draft pick, did he have any advice for kids who are often overlooked, yet have talent?
“Don’t let anyone work harder than you. And have the mindset that nobody is better than you.”
That’s good advice and hopefully he takes that mindset into spring training and the 2016 season (and beyond).
If you happen to check out Royals spring training in Surprise or see games in which Mills pitches during the season, you may notice something a little different. At the end of last season, he started wearing glasses and assured me that he will be wearing them again in 2016: “Rick Vaughn style.” Though I don’t think the Royals will let him go full Rick Vaughn (Charlie Sheen in the movie Major League).
Best of luck to Alec and hopefully we will see him in Kansas City before too long!