The Cubs are in the market for pitching, both in the rotation and the bullpen.
But they're not shopping at the top of the market or even in the middle. With a projected 2020 payroll already about $6 million over the luxury tax threshold and a lot of money already committed to the pitching staff, the Cubs don't have a lot left over to apply to the arms race.
That's why we've seen a host of buy-low additions in the pitching department this winter — Rule 5 draft selection Trevor Megill, a minor-league deal for Brandon Morrow, trading for Jharel Cotton, signing Dan Winkler in free agency, picking up CD Pelham off waivers.
So as the Cubs put together their pitching puzzle for 2020, many of the answers must come internally.
One of those internal options is Adbert Alzolay, the right-hander who has been the top pitching prospect in the Cubs' system the last couple years but has seen his career slowed by injuries.
After a lat strain disrupted most of 2018 and led to only 39.2 innings with Triple-A Iowa, Alzolay made 16 starts in the minors last year and four big-league outings. It tallied up to 81.2 innings, which was a reasonable output for a young arm the Cubs were trying to protect. That's why the Cubs did not call Alzolay's number in the big-league bullpen much in September, hoping to limit his workload with a long-term outlook in mind.
But Alzolay will be 25 in March, and the Cubs have said they're going to push the pitchers in their system instead of handling everybody with kid gloves. Don't expect Alzolay to throw 200 innings in 2020 (he's never topped 126 innings in a professional season), but maybe he could take on 100 or so of the nearly 1,500 innings MLB teams have to account for each season.
When he was called up to make his MLB debut on June 20, Alzolay threw four innings in relief and wound up closing the game out. He came back five days later and started against the Braves, pitching well in 4.2 innings. His next time out (July 1), he struggled to the tune of seven runs on 10 hits in 2.2 innings in Pittsburgh. Beyond a brief one-inning appearance on Sept. 6 in Milwaukee in a blowout game, that was the extent of Alzolay's first foray into the big leagues.
"We have very high hopes for him as a pitcher," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said at the Winter Meetings last week. "His challenge is inconsistency. The injuries have led to inconsistent work, and as a result I think it probably has taken a toll on the speed of his development.
"I thought he showed glimpses of what he could be last year. He also had moments that young pitchers often have where he made bad pitches and learned that you can't do that in the big leagues. I have no doubt that he can contribute to our team next year. In what role, I don't know yet. But I think roles are a little bit more fluid in baseball now pitching-wise. It could be as a reliever, starter, multi-inning reliever — who knows. But he's gonna have an impact on our team. I have no doubt about that."
So Alzolay is going to be Tyler Chatwood circa 2019? Or Mike Montgomery circa his entire Cubs career?
Not the worst idea in the world for a young pitcher still trying to break into the big leagues, but it's a very difficult role — both mentally and physically. There's a reason teams typically look to fill that spot with veterans who have big-league experience as both a starter and reliever.
That being said, Hoyer has a point — roles are less defined nowadays than in years past. We're in the era of "the opener" and eight-man bullpens and only the best starting pitchers earning the leash to work beyond 200 innings.
At the moment, the Cubs' rotation looks like this:
The fifth spot might be Chatwood's if the season started today, but Alec Mills, Colin Rea and Cotton should be in the mix there as well.
In the bullpen, the picture currently looks like this:
Contenders for the other spots include Duane Underwood Jr., Dillon Maples, James Norwood, Mills, Rea, Cotton and Pelham.
By the sounds of it, Alzolay will get some opportunities to start and pitch out of the bullpen.
"We see him as a guy who can do both," Hoyer said last month. "He can certainly be a starter, but he also has an ability with his stuff ticking up out of the bullpen to be a guy that can lock down important innings in the bullpen. We're unclear right now what role we'll have him in. We'll have those discussions with him this winter, but we're totally comfortable with him doing either one."
As the Cubs look to keep their window of contention open far beyond 2021, Alzolay could emerge as a major x-factor. If he realizes his potential and becomes a lockdown part of the pitching staff, that's a major piece for the team both in 2020 and beyond.