Back in 2017, we were still learning about these Dipoto-led Mariners, about their willingness to disregard industry perceptions and make choices that can give the perception of zigging where others have zagged—or in the case of Wyatt Mills, Gon-zag-a-ing.
This video carefully edits out the initial announcement of Mills’s name as the Mariners’ third-round draft pick and the silence that followed, but it still could be used in communications studies classes to teach the fine art of vamping on-air while desperately googling stats on a little-known senior reliever (although not in pronouncing the name of the school. They’re the Zags, not the Zogs, and they’re in March Madness every year, come on people). This moment stands out because of its rarity; while it’s not uncommon for some lesser-known prospects to be picked in the top 100 picks of the draft, generally analysts like Callis and Mayo have an impressive mental rolodex of 250+ prospects—maybe even closer to 400 or 500—who they might be called to speak upon, even briefly, during the first three rounds of the draft. Wyatt Mills, an idiosyncratic pick from an idiosyncratic school by a similarly idiosyncratic team, was not one of them.
Of course, the reason the Mariners went for Mills and his couch-change signing bonus in the third round is so they could allocate money to sign Sam Carlson, the promising prep righty they’d taken in the second round of the draft, and a name well known to the draft analysts. Four years later, though, it’s Mills who stands on the precipice of becoming a big-leaguer, a chance that increased exponentially when the Mariners added him to their 40-man roster ahead of the Rule 5 Draft this off-season.
His addition wasn’t a slam-dunk, though. The Mariners had two players they had to protect from the Rule 5 Draft in newly-acquired OF Taylor Trammell and recently re-acquired RHP Juan Then, who is now throwing near triple digits and has adopted the nickname “El Misíl.” That left strikeout machine Sam Delaplane and Mills, both relievers, needing spots on a 40-man that was starting to fill up quickly. Delaplane had at least been invited to the alternate training site and been throwing with the big-league club in spring and summer camps, but Mills was a surprising snub from the training site, which left some of us concerned about his future with the team.
As you’d expect from a senior sign, Mills blasted through the lower levels of the minors with no problems until an aggressive late-season promotion in 2018 to Double-A Arkansas. In 10 innings with the Travs, Mills struggled to adjust to the more discerning Double-A batter, and his strikeouts tumbled while his walks rose. In a return trip to Arkansas and over a full season, Mills fared much better despite scuffling initially, amping his strikeouts back up, but more importantly, getting back to the soft contact-groundouts that are his bread and butter as a sidearmer. The Mariners didn’t opt to call Mills up along with his teammates like Art Warren at the end of the 2019 season, but they did send him to the Arizona Fall League, where he collected 17 strikeouts in 11 innings and was also selected for Team USA, making a few appearances on a national stage.
It felt like Mills’ stock was high coming into 2020, which made his omission from the alternate site surprising. Dipoto explained it as a “numbers crunch,” with the team opting to bring in the 2020 draftees rather than have them sit at home all summer, along with the Mariners’ traditional strategy of slow-playing college arms that have had a lot of work in their draft years, necessitating invites for both George Kirby and Isaiah Campbell. But to Mills and fellow long-tenured reliever Jack Anderson, also left out of the alternate training site, it felt a bit like a challenge. Step up your game on your own, and we’ll check in with you in the fall development league.
And step up his game Mills did. After pushing his velocity into the mid-90s shortly after his draft year, Mills’ fastball velocity fell off a little, more to the 92-93 mph zone, during his long workload in 2019. He took the time at home in quarantine to work on rebuilding his strength, training at a facility in Spokane, and showed up in instructional league ball with mid-90s on his heater, sitting 94-96 consistently and occasionally popping 97. Mills also impressed by showing improved command on his pitches, especially his slider, something that has nagged him on-and-off during his time in the minors. The old saying in scouting is “don’t get beat in your backyard,” and the Mariners couldn’t ignore Mills’ performance in the instructional league—and if they had, representatives from other teams involved in their fall league pod wouldn’t have. Rather than risk losing a reliever who’s struck out 154 batters in 126 minor-league innings, the Mariners added Mills to the 40-man this November.
It’s always been easy to root for Mills as a hometown kid (from those who know him from Spokane, he’s apparently super-nice; I can only speak for his mom, who I met at an AFL game and was also super-nice), and as a little bit of an underdog story. But it’s impossible not to admire the mindset of someone who, when faced with a professional disappointment, figures out how to make something happen for himself.
How do you play catch alone? You find a way.— Rob Jesselson (@RobJesselson) April 8, 2020
Former @GonzagaBaseball star and current @Mariners product, Wyatt Mills (@gwyattmills), is back home in Spokane doing everything he can to remain ready for the season! pic.twitter.com/q572KxWU3W
“This is what life is right now, so I’m going to do the best I can with what it is” is where I want to be mentally, but will freely admit it’s not always where I am. But it’s inspiring to hear nonetheless, and even more so when that inspiration pays off in a 40-man spot. Keep finding a way, Wyatt.