There were a dozen Cubs storylines to pick from that last weekend of the regular season at Guaranteed Rate Field: Kris Bryant’s return from injury, Willson Contreras’s towering bat flip, the Cubs clinching the division title.
With the team hurtling toward a Wild Card series against the Marlins, Adbert Alzolay’s commanding start in the regular season finale faded from the spotlight. But looking back, when it comes to 2021 implications, Alzolay’s storyline is the most compelling.
“I feel like that’s what I needed, I need to have that confidence in all I can do,” Alzolay said on Sept. 27, after holding the White Sox to one run on two hits. “So, it’s pretty high right now, and I’m happy with that.”
Last week, the Cubs signed free agent Kohl Stewart to a one-year deal and agreed to terms with Trevor Williams, and they are reportedly in the market for another buy-low starting pitcher. But Alzolay is poised to become the in-house addition to the rotation.
“Going into the year (2020) we were hoping that Adbert could develop into a major-league starter,” then-Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said in October, “and now we see one.”
That was one of Epstein’s more definitive statements in the weeks after the Cubs’ Wild Card exit, with an offseason of uncertainty ahead. Of course, Epstein would resign in November and hand the reins to Jed Hoyer. But nothing about the Cubs’ offseason so far suggests that the club’s plans have changed for Alzolay.
“He positioned himself to give himself every opportunity to earn a rotation spot, for sure,” Cubs vice president of player development Matt Dorey said last week. “… Adbert’s done all the work – probably above and beyond all the work, he’s so diligent. So, I’m excited for him, I’m excited for this opportunity, but he needs to come into camp ready and go earn that job.”
Look into Alzolay’s growth in the past year, and it’s easy to see why he’s in a position to break into the rotation.
With the minor league season canceled, Alzolay spent much of the season training at the Cubs’ South Bend alternate site, where the only game play came in intrasquad scrimmages. Then, with injuries to starting pitchers José Quintana and Tyler Chatwood and four double-headers added to the Cubs schedule, the team turned to Alzolay to fill in.
He started off hot (allowing just three hits in his first two major league appearances last year) then batted through control issues (five runs in less than six innings in his next two games combined) and finished strong.
Alzolay’s role disrupted his regular schedule, Dorey remembers, and he lost a little bit of the feel for his slider. It was a new pitch for Alzolay this season. A quick adjustment in South Bend got him back on track for the end of the season.
“I think he felt comfortable in the big leagues for the first time,” Dorey said on the Cubs Talk Podcast last month. “After that last start, he feels like he belongs.”
In a rotation full of soft-tossing right-handers who rely on control and deception (see Kyle Hendricks, Alec Mills and Zach Davies), Alzolay could provide a different look. In his last start, Alzolay was throwing 95 mph heaters and locating his slider in the zone.
His competition for the open spots in the Cubs rotation will become clearer in the coming weeks. Spring Training camps are scheduled to open Feb. 17.