Of all the changes to the Cubs’ baseball landscape as they look toward 2021, the most dramatic one might be this:
“Going into the year we were hoping that Adbert could develop into a major-league starter, and now we see one,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said.
If it wasn’t for all the talk Monday about fixing the failed lineup core and about how long Epstein would be around to lead the effort, that nugget on right-hander Adbert Alzolay might have qualified as headline news from the hourlong media briefing.
It certainly will if Alzolay succeeds where an entire organization has failed for nine years and becomes the Cubs’ first homegrown starter to stick in the rotation since Epstein took over the baseball operation in the fall of 2011.
“It’s just crazy,” Alzolay said. “You’re just trying to reach here, and to be the first guy is a big responsibility, too, because I think you have to share that with all those guys [in the minors], too.”
That was Alzolay talking after his first major-league start, last season, when he pitched 4 2/3 innings and held Atlanta to one run on one hit — a first-batter homer by Ronald Acuña Jr. that he followed by retiring 12 of the next 13 he faced.
That's how big the story of the Cubs’ inability to develop pitching had become even among the minor-league pitchers trying to break through and become the first to stick — let alone the first to throw a playoff pitch for them.
But armed with a new and nasty slider, Alzolay is positioned to become that first big homegrown hope, after four starts (3.31 ERA, 20 strikeouts in 16 1/3 innings) during the pandemic-shortened season and looking ahead at a rotation that loses Tyler Chatwood, José Quintana and possibly Jon Lester to free agency.
Epstein didn’t downplay the additional need to go outside the organization for starting depth during his media address Monday. But after he raved about the frontline 1-2 punch of Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish coming back next year, he also praised both less-experienced returning right-handers, Alec Mills (of no-hit fame) and Alzolay.
For a team in need of a significant payroll haircut even before pandemic revenue losses come into play, Alzolay — and anybody else the farm system can produce next year — can’t come fast enough.
Epstein mentioned four of the pitching coaches and coordinators at alternate-site South Bend this year who helped Alzolay with the new hard strikeout pitch — which he used to help strike out eight during a five-inning start against the White Sox in the season finale.
“He’s primed to slide into the rotation,” Epstein said of Alzolay. “That still leaves at least one open spot and the need to add some depth moving forward.”
That’s one fewer than they’ve had to backfill with each starting loss in previous seasons.
Consider that Alzolay’s six big-league starts represent more than half of the 11 made for the Cubs in nine years by homegrown pitchers. One was made by Tyson Miller, this year — which means that before the strange 2020 season only three homegrown pitchers besides Alzolay made a combined four starts for the Cubs, totaling a combined 12 2/3 innings.
The Cubs have yet to have a homegrown pitcher throw so much as a pitch in any of 351 2/3 innings in 39 postseason games under the Epstein regime. Thirty different pitchers acquired from other organizations threw every pitch.
Had the Cubs advanced past the wild-card round this year, Alzolay and 2012 second-round pick Duane Underwood Jr. likely would have been the first two. Both were on the Cubs’ postseason roster.
Alzolay said he spent his big-league time this season staying close to veterans such as Darvish, Lester, Hendricks and Jose Quintana, watching their every move and asking questions.
“You can learn so much from those guys,” he said, adding that his confidence coming off this season “is pretty high right now.”
Alzolay and Underwood are back next year and in a best-case scenario could be signs of life to come in 2021 from the pitching side of the farm system — which has been the biggest factor in the Cubs’ payroll bloat because of deficiencies that forced the Cubs to buy all of its pitching from the outside during a six-year run of winning seasons.
Top pitching prospect Brailyn Marquez might have had a season of development at Double-A this year if there had been a minor-league season but earned his 100-mph big-league debut despite the makeshift conditions at South Bend, in the same game Alzolay started to finish the season.
“We had a number of pitchers we were excited about who were primed to be at Double-A this year, who didn’t have Double-A seasons,” Epstein said. “I think with the benefit of some of the development that they did, and hopefully a productive offseason and spring training, they can at least provide some major-league depth next year.”
Consider it the 2021 headline waiting in the wings.