Adbert Alzolay

Diamond in the rough: 8 guys who may provide an unexpected lift in Cubs' 2018 bullpen

Diamond in the rough: 8 guys who may provide an unexpected lift in Cubs' 2018 bullpen

The job of a relief pitcher may be the most volatile role in all of sports.

Relievers can come out of absolutely nowhere and turn in incredible seasons. New Cubs closer Brandon Morrow and former White Sox setup guy Anthony Swarzak are two recent examples.

But bullpen arms can also disappear as fast as they arrive. Look at Hector Rondon's precipitous fall in Chicago from elite closer to a guy in the doghouse and out of the circle of trust.

Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein understands this volatility and acknowledges the high level of risk associated with relievers, choosing to combat that risk by taking a bunch of fliers on players.

What relievers could emerge as a diamond in the rough and provide an unexpected lift in the Cubs' 2018 bullpen?

We are not including Dillon Maples on this list, because in a lot of ways, he's already arrived. It would not be crazy to think a kid with a 100 mph fastball, a wipeout slider and the pedigree of a top pitching prospect to make an impact the year after turning in a dominant minor-league season and making his MLB debut. Maples figures to spend time in Chicago at some point in 2018, even if he doesn't make the Opening Day roster.

But here are eight other guys who may come out of nowhere in 2018:

1. Adbert Alzolay, RHP

Alzolay is currently the organization's top starting pitching prospect and the Cubs are already talking about the possibility of him serving as depth for the big-league rotation.

But Alzolay may also find a way to make an impact out of the bullpen. The Cubs will want to limit his innings throughout his age-23 season, so if he forces the issue and deserves a call-up to The Show, maybe he can best help the team as a middle reliever.

[RELATED: The prospect that may change everything about the Cubs' long-term pitching plans]

Alzolay made seven relief appearances in the Arizona Fall League just a few months ago, striking out 13 batters in 11.2 innings. He has the stuff and the control to get big-league hitters out.

2. Duane Underwood Jr., RHP

The same thing applies to Underwood as Alzolay. Underwood was a former high draft pick (2nd round in 2012) with good stuff and is still only 23. He's struggled with his health in recent years, so there's no way the Cubs will overload him in 2018.

Even if Underwood sticks as a starter long-term, he could provide some value in Chicago out of the bullpen late this year.

[MORE: Will 2018 be the year Duane Underwood finally breaks out?]

3. Shae Simmons, RHP

Simmons has bounced around for a few years after being drafted in 2012, but he's still only 27 and signed a free-agent deal with the Cubs last month.

He comes with some big-league experience and success under his belt, appearing in 26 games with the Atlanta Braves in 2014, posting a 2.91 ERA and 9.6 K/9. 

Simmons missed all of 2015 to Tommy John and pitched in just 22 games in 2017 between the majors and minors, but has struck out 231 batters across 177.1 innings and if he can remain healthy, may be an underrated contributor to the Cubs bullpen.

4. Dario Alvarez, LHP

The 29-year-old southpaw was one of the Cubs' first signings this winter (Nov. 29) and also has big-league experience, though with mixed results.

Alvarez has a career 11.4 K/9 rate in 56 MLB games, but also has a 5.06 ERA and 1.63 WHIP. With Triple-A Round Rock in the Texas Rangers system last season, he posted a 2.33 ERA and struck out 36 batters in only 27 innings.

Alvarez will most likely begin the season in the minors and provide left-handed depth in case any of the southpaws (Justin Wilson, Brian Duensing, Mike Montgomery) in Chicago are injured or ineffective.

5. Corey Black, RHP

This name may be familiar to most Cubs fans — he was the main piece in return for Alfonso Soriano from the New York Yankees back in 2013. 

Now 26, Black missed all of 2017 with injury. He was moved out of the rotation to the bullpen in the middle of 2015 with Double-A Tennessee and made 48 appearances as a reliever in 2016, 28 of which came with Triple-A Iowa.

Black has strikeout stuff (career 9.5 K/9 in the minors) and whiffed 62 batters in 53 innings in 2016. Now fully healthy, it wouldn't be surprising to see him take a leap and make his MLB debut at some point this summer.

6. Cory Mazzoni, RHP

The Cubs claimed the 28-year-old right-hander off waivers from the Padres on Nov. 6 and just served up a homer to former top prospect Eloy Jimenez on an 0-2 pitch last weekend.

He has had a taste of the big leagues, but to disastrous results — a 17.28 ERA (32 ERs in 16.2 innings), 2.94 WHIP and 7 homers allowed in 14 games.

But Mazzoni is a former 2nd-round pick (2011 by the Mets out of North Carolina State) and has had some success in the minor leagues over the last three seasons — 107 Ks, 2.11 ERA, 1.00 WHIP in 72.2 innings while recovering from a shoulder injury.

While his track record doesn't inspire much confidence, Mazzoni could be a nice case study for the Cubs as they've completely revamped their organization-wide pitching infrastructure this winter and hope to change how they develop pitching.

7. Anthony Bass, RHP

No pitcher in the Cubs organization may have a better chance at becoming the next Anthony Swarzak than a guy who shares the same first name.

Bass, 30, is a non-roster invitee to spring training and comes with plenty of MLB experience under his belt (131 games, 18 starts) to unspectacular results (4.60 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 6.0 K/9). 

Before breaking out at age 31 in 2017, Swarzak had a 4.52 ERA, 1.38 WHIP and 5.8 K/9 in 217 big-league outings (32 starts). 

Bass would need to find better results with his 93 mph fastball in 2018 and put it all together like Swarzak, but stranger things have happened.

8. Danny Hultzen, LHP

The former No. 2 overall pick (2011) has yet to reach the majors and hasn't pitched in Triple-A since 2013 in a career marred by injury.

Hultzen is still only 28 and while he hasn't pitched in over a year, he's working his way back from injury. It was a low-risk for the Cubs and one that could pay off if Hultzen actually stays healthy.

The southpaw has a career 2.86 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 9.9 K/9 in 169.2 minor-league innings spread out across four seasons. He's always had the stuff capable of pitching in the big leagues, so with a little luck in the health department, maybe he can actually reach The Show and find a role in the Cubs bullpen.

Bonus: Jake Stinnett, RHP

The Cubs' former 2014 2nd-round pick, Stinnett is now 25 and has steadily risen through the Cubs system. He moved to the bullpen in 2017 and had stellar results (1.19 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 10.7 K/9 in 14 games) while reaching Double-A Tennessee.

If Stinnett stays healthy, he could wind up as the second pitcher drafted by Epstein's front office to reach the big leagues.'s Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

USA TODAY's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.

Who are Cubs relying on to finally bring homegrown pitching to big leagues?


Who are Cubs relying on to finally bring homegrown pitching to big leagues?

There are less than two weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training to kick off Year 7 of Theo Epstein's regime and yet the Cubs are still waiting for the first wave of true homegrown pitchers to roll through Chicago.

To be clear, Epstein did exactly what he was hired to do — stop the championship drought and set the Cubs up for a period of sustained success.

This is one of the best teams in baseball and barring a wild rash of terrible luck and injuries, the Cubs should have one of the top pitching staffs in the game once again in 2018.

But the Cubs have built that pitching staff based off trades and free agents. Not one pitcher on the projected Opening Day roster was drafted by the club and only Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr. have spent extended time in the Cubs minor-league system after coming over in trades with the Texas Rangers.

The Cubs are working to rectify that situation, bringing in pitching guru Jim Benedict and new minor-league pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara to add to the mix this season. New big-league pitching coach Jim Hickey is part of the equation, too. 

Benedict will work with Cubs senior VP of player development and amateur scouting Jason McLeod to get a look at the entire pitching infrastructure within the organization, but will mostly focus on guys on the 40-man roster.

"It's definitely been frustrating," Cubs director of player development Jaron Madison said earlier this month. "And that's why there's this whole re-evaluation of how we're doing everything from the ground up, just to make sure everybody's on the same page and we're doing everything possible to get the most out of our pitchers.

"...We're digging in and re-evaluating everything we're doing from a pitching standpoint. We've come a long way, but now we need something to take us over that next level. So that's where [Benedict] and Hickey and Sagara will come in.

"We're completely looking at how we do everything at the minor-league level. There might be some more changes there to help the infrastructure and get these pitchers ready to go."

Madison also pointed to the level of patience required with pitchers that is different from how hitters are evaluated. 

The Cubs placed an emphasis on polished college position players when they had Top 10 picks in the draft and were able to let guys like Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ fly through the farm system.

Pitchers have to be handled in a completely different way.

"Pitching takes longer," Madison said. "You have to prepare these guys. You can't just shoot a guy up to Double-A or Triple-A if it's his first or second year because they have to build up and have innings under their belt or they're going to get to the big leagues and they won't have any innings left and we're shutting them down.

"You've seen that with a lot of big-league clubs who have run out of innings — like [Stephen] Strasburg that one year [with the Nationals]. So that's the difference with pitching — you have to build on what they did the previous year and add a little bit to that."

Gone are guys like Zack Godley and Paul Blackburn, who were traded away and wound up posting solid seasons in the big leagues last year. Pierce Johnson — the first pitcher drafted by Epstein's front office — made his MLB debut in 2017 and was promptly waived in September. 

James Farris (2014 — 9th round) looks like he could grow into a big-league reliever, but he was dealt to Colorado for Butler a year ago. Duane Underwood Jr. — the second pitcher selected by Epstein's group in 2012 — still hasn't reached Triple-A and has had trouble staying healthy.

Other former early-round draft picks like Tyler Skulina (2013 — 4th round) and Trey Masek (2013 — 5th round) are no longer with the organization: Skulina is with the Nationals and Masek is in Independent Ball.

Rob Zastryzny (2013 — 2nd round) is the only pitcher drafted under Epstein's front office that has made even the slightest impact in the big leagues and he's pitched just 29 innings the last two years to a 4.34 ERA and 1.48 WHIP.

Dillon Maples — who enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2017 — was part of the final draft of Jim Hendry's front office in 2011.

Zastryzny and Maples could have an impact in the Chicago bullpen at various points in 2018 and on the starter's front, the Cubs are insistent those waves are coming. Adbert Alzolay and Jen-Ho Tseng were both signed as international free agents and the Cubs are counting on both to act as rotation depth in 2018.

[MORE — The prospect that may change everything about the Cubs' long-term pitching plans]

Health is a big part of the problem.

Carson Sands (2014 — 4th round) appeared in just 8 games in 2017 while Jake Stinnett (2014 — 2nd round) made only 14 relief appearances in the minors.

Ryan Williams (2014 — 10th round) was the Cubs' minor league pitcher of the year in 2015 when he went 14-3 with a 2.16 ERA and topped out at Double-A Tennessee, but the big righty has only appeared in 15 games (11 starts) in the two years since.

Trevor Clifton (2013 — 12th round) — the organization's minor league pitcher of the year in 2016 — took a step back in Double-A last year, posting a 5.20 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in 21 starts.

The Cubs handled their most recent first-round picks (Brendon Little and Alex Lange) with kid gloves, as the two combined for just 10 starts in short-season Class-A ball.

But Little and Lange are part of a group that has the Cubs front office believing reinforcements are on the way. Seven of the Cubs' Top 10 prospects ( are pitchers, with Lange coming at No. 4 and Little at No. 5.

Back in 2014-15, Corey Black was seen as a future option in the big-league bullpen but he missed all of 2017 to injury. He's now back and fully healthy and will start the year in Triple-A and could once again provide bullpen depth.

Southpaw Justin Steele (2014 — 5th round) enjoyed a breakout 2017 (2.92 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 7.5 K/9) in High-A and is starting to draw buzz — ranked No. 10 on's prospect list.

Thomas Hatch is another former high pick (2016 — 3rd round) who is beginning to emerge on the radar near the big league. The 23-year-old right-hander made 26 starts with Advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach in 2017 and struck out more than a batter per inning (126 Ks in 124.2 IP) and was ranked No. 7 on's list.

But it's the international signings — not draft selections — that are really turning heads in the Cubs system.

Oscar De La Cruz (No. 1 on's prospect rankings) turns 23 in March and has been in the Cubs system for five years, but he's made only 53 appearances in that span as he's had trouble staying healthy. He had a pec issue in 2017, but is healthy now and the Cubs believe he could move quickly through the system with a big-league-caliber arsenal.

Jose Albertos (No. 2 prospect) is 19 and started just 10 games last year, but the Cubs love his mental makeup and toughness.

"All the tools are there," said Alex Suarez, the Cubs director of international scouting and assistant director of player development. "He's a young kid that — very much like Dillon [Maples] — has a major-league arsenal. ... We're confident he can move pretty quick."

Albertos and Lange are slated to begin 2018 with Class-A South Bend.

Most of these guys won't make any impact on the Cubs' pennant race this fall, but the Cubs hope they can be one day in the not-so-distant future.

"I think those waves are coming," Madison said. "It's just a matter of staying healthy and continuing to do everything we can to develop these guys.

"It's really digging in on those guys and making sure we're doing everything we can do to get them to the big leagues."