The Cubs’ timing wasn’t ideal. The club had invested in player development over the offseason, including changes in their minor league pitching infrastructure.
“When the pandemic hit we saw that as a real lost opportunity with no minor league season,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “But the alternate site in South Bend is almost like the perfect laboratory.”
The Cubs have their technologically advanced Pitch Lab in Arizona, but in South Bend this year, the Cubs have brought some of the same methods to the unique setting brought on by the pandemic. Now that the Cubs’ starting rotation has taken a hit, with Tyler Chatwood and Jose Quintana landing on the 10-day injured list this week, the Cubs need those development efforts to pan out more than ever.
Namely Adbert Alzolay, who started for the Cubs in Game 1 of a doubleheader against the Cardinals on Saturday, a 4-2 loss.
His two starts this season have played out much like his two last year: the first a rousing success, the second short-lived.
On Saturday, he allowed two runs and issued five walks in 2 2/3 innings.
“For the first time, the youth showed back up a little bit,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I think he was trying to do a little too much at times and got a little out of sync, that’s all. The stuff’s there.”
That’s one thing the setup at South Bend can’t replicate – the intensity of a big-league game, albeit one without fans.
Unlike the minor leagues, groups at the alternate sites don't play other teams. In an insulated environment, the only competitions the players on the Cubs’ South Bend roster get are intra-squad scrimmages.
But Epstein and several pitchers will tell you, there are advantages to that kind of development setting.
“It helps you really specify in your bullpens,” sad Cubs pitching prospect Tyson Miller, who the team recalled Saturday after using three relievers in Game 1. “We’re really big with the cameras and everything, the sabermetrics and analytics of why it works and why we should throw it. So, when we don’t have to worry about getting people out, you can focus on working on that stuff instead.”
For both Alzolay and Miller that meant developing their two-seam fastballs. Alzolay has also added a slider.
“That pitch is changing my game for sure,” Alzolay said of the two-seamer, “because I’ve been getting a lot of soft contact with that pitch. It’s just made my slider and my breaking ball better, and even my changeup because it has kind of the same movement.”
The effect was apparent in the first two innings of Saturday’s game, in which he allowed no hits. Alzolay even got out of a jam, after he issued a leadoff walk and Kris Bryant made an error on a chopped ground ball. Alzolay struck out the next two batters and then induced a ground out.
“I made pitches when I had to make them,” Alzolay said. “That’s a big takeaway for me, especially facing this (Cardinals) lineup.”
Then in the third inning, a pair of singles and a trio of walks piled up for Alzolay. By the time he left the game with two outs in the inning, he’d already thrown a total of 78 pitches.
The Cubs need a fifth starter, and they can't count on Chatwood (right forearm strain), or even Quintana (left lat inflammation) to swoop in off the IL to save the day.
Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said he hoped Chatwood will return this season – not a strong vote of confidence. As of Saturday, Quintana was still holding off on starting a throwing program until his lat soreness was gone, according to Ross.
The Cubs, who have notoriously struggled to developed homegrown pitching, don’t have many other options beyond Alzolay or maybe Miller, who allowed just one run in three innings out of the bullpen.
“I feel like the work that we have been putting in for the last five months,” Alzolay said after his first start of the season, “I can say is really paying off right now.”
Next, the Cubs need Alzolay’s progress in South Bend to translate consistently.
“We have a lot of faith in Adbert,” Ross said Saturday. “He’ll learn from this outing and continue to get better.”