Where does Adbert Alzolay fit in the Cubs' 2020 pitching picture?

Where does Adbert Alzolay fit in the Cubs' 2020 pitching picture?

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:

Yu Darvish
Kyle Hendricks
Jon Lester
Jose Quintana

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:

Craig Kimbrel
Rowan Wick
Kyle Ryan
Brad Wieck
Dan Winkler
Trevor Megill

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.

Jon Lester on Cubs-Cards series amid COVID-19 news: 'I don't see that happening'

Jon Lester on Cubs-Cards series amid COVID-19 news: 'I don't see that happening'

At least the Cubs got to try out that new extra-inning rule. They even got five innings of scoreless baseball from their much-maligned bullpen before the weekend was done.

But where does the hottest-starting team in the National League go next?

Nobody could be sure Sunday as worsening COVID-19 news swirled around the Cardinals during the Cubs’ extra-inning victory over the Pirates.

Various reports suggested as many as four more Cardinals players and staff tested positive for the coronavirus Saturday night, in addition to the four confirmed cases from earlier in the week. That led to another round of testing Sunday to confirm the results of the potentially positive cases — all playing out five days before the Cubs are scheduled to open a three-game series in St. Louis.

“I would imagine that we’re probably not playing those games this weekend. But I can’t fully speak to that,” veteran pitcher Jon Lester said.” That’s just my opinion. Maybe there’s a way where we flip the schedule around where we’re playing somebody else. I think guys right now just want to keep playing.

“It sucks that we’re dealing with this, but it’s the nature of the beast right now. The league I’m sure will alter the plans going forward. If we’re in St. Louis on Friday, we’re in St. Louis on Friday. We’ll figure it out, and we’ll try to beat the Cardinals and move on to the next day. But right now, as of today, I don’t see that happening.”

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest Cubs news and analysis.

The Cardinals already have had four days of games postponed — the second team to deal with an outbreak after the Marlins had 18 players test positive in the days following their opener in Philadelphia. The Marlins haven’t played in a week. Their outbreak prompted MLB to juggle the schedules of other teams impacted by the Marlins shutdown to allow them to keep playing during the week. 

If the Cardinals news doesn’t improve fast, it could mean a much tougher decision for commissioner Rob Manfred, who in recent days had pledged to persist with the season, even if it meant teams would finish with different numbers of games played.

Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said on Saturday his conversations with MLB and officials from other teams in recent days offered no sense of clarity on the viability of play during the first-week crisis — even as MLB mandated safety compliance officers for each team and stressed greater adherence to protocols.

“I don’t think there’s any consensus,” Hoyer said. “Our experience so far has been positive, and based on what I have viewed this is absolutely survivable. But our experience hasn’t been the rule.”

RELATED: Why no Cubs have expressed intent to opt out amid MLB COVID-19 outbreaks

The Cubs are the only team in the league that hasn’t had a player test positive since intake testing began more than a month ago — though star third baseman Kris Bryant has self-quarantined since reporting a stomachache to team officials Saturday. He has continued to test negative, was said to feel better Sunday, and might be cleared to play Monday or Tuesday depending on the results and timing of two more tests.

Whether the 7-2 Cubs and everyone else have a season to keep playing by the time he were to return — much less a Cubs-Cardinals series to play Friday — remains in flux.

Depending on how widespread the Cardinals’ outbreak becomes, the Cubs might already have faced a higher risk series in their sweep of the Pirates — who faced the Cardinals five days before taking the field at Wrigley.

“Those are the kinds of things you start thinking about during this,” Hoyer said. “You’d be crazy not to start thinking about the number of days and making sure that [the Cardinals’] outbreak is under control. I think you have a right to have those concerns and ask those questions.

“That’s probably the area that I’m focused on right now, is that as they test, the positives have to stop before we can really have a sense of what we’re dealing with.”

Until then, the team that has looked impressive against the Brewers, Reds and Pirates — and even better in containing the virus within its bubble — could be on the brink of having all its best laid plans and early performance wiped out by teams outside their bubble and factors beyond their control.

“You don’t want to see something go down just because of, I guess, a couple teams,” said Kyle Schwarber, who drove in his sixth run Sunday, threw out a runner at the plate in the 10th and has an .851 OPS so far. “Hopefully, this is something quick [with the Cards]. Hopefully, there’s able to be a fix and they’re able to keep the season going.

“It would be a disappointment just because you see the group in here, what we’ve been doing,” he added. “We’ve been responsible in everything that we’re trying to do because we know we’re part of something greater here.”

That’s about doing their part to make sure a two-month season and playoffs can be completed during a global pandemic as much as it is about doing what they can to still be one of the teams playing at that point.

The Cubs say all they can do now is show up Monday for their game against the Royals until or unless they hear otherwise.

“You can’t worry about Team ‘X’ testing positive three or four or 10, 11 times,” Lester said. “We have to worry about what’s in front of us.

“And if the commissioner comes and says we’re done, then we’re done. And if he says play on, then we play on.”


How the Cubs bullpen became the surprise hero in series finale vs. Pirates

How the Cubs bullpen became the surprise hero in series finale vs. Pirates

Cubs reliver Jeremy Jeffress clapped in triumph. Shortstop Javier Baez had just fielded a sharp ground ball and thrown a dart to third baseman David Bote to tag out the lead runner.

The new extra innings rule had put Jeffress under pressure as soon as he stepped on the mound, but that out was like a relief valve.

“That’s exactly how you do it,” Bote said. “The pitchers made good pitches, kept them off balance.”

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest Cubs news and analysis.

In the Cubs’ 2-1 win over the Pirates on Sunday, the Chicago bullpen held Pittsburg scoreless through five innings, including two extras. This was the same bullpen that entered play Sunday with an MLB-worst 9.75 ERA. But in the series finale, Jeffress, Ryan Tepera and Dan Winkler all performed under pressure, buying the Cubs time until Baez’s walk-off single in the 11th inning.

With less than a week until the active roster is cut to 28 players, the Cubs bullpen is taking shape.

“That’s a lot of innings that we asked out of our bullpen tonight,” Cubs manager David Ross said, “and they did a really good job.”

The bullpen’s shutout began with Casey Sadler, who pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings. But with two outs in the eighth inning, Sadler walked Jose Osuna, and runners stood on first and second with cleanup hitter Colin Moran up next.

Ross turned to Dan Winkler, who only lasted a third of an inning in his first appearance this season. A week ago, he walked two and gave up an RBI single in the Cubs’ narrow win at Cincinnati. He redeemed himself Sunday.

Winkler threw three cutters in a row to Moran, and he whiffed on all of them. Winkler came back out the next inning and preserved the 1-1 tie, setting the Cubs up for their first extra-inning game of the season.

“Real big outing tonight,” Ross said. “Thought he looked sharp. Some nice cutters in there deep. Pitching though some moments was poised. Things get a little bit tenser as the game moves on in a 1-1 game, first real clincher that I think I’ve had coming down the stretch. … When you’ve got somebody out there that you feel like’s in control of the ball game, it’s just a nice feeling as a manager.”

For this season, in an attempt to avoid 15-inning games in a jam-packed schedule, Major League Baseball has adopted the international tiebreaker rule.

The hitting team starts every half inning after the ninth (or the seventh during double headers) with a runner on second. For the Cubs, that meant a bullpen that has struggled in pressure situations this year had to start each extra inning under pressure.

“For guys to step up right there and make pitches, I can only imagine what that feels like,” said starting pitcher Jon Lester, who allowed just one run in six innings. “You haven’t even thrown a pitch yet and you’ve got a guy on second base.”

With the game on the line, Ross put the ball in Tepera and Jeffress’ hands.

Craig Kimbrel, who has traditionally been the Cubs’ closer, is working through mechanical issues. On Saturday, Ross declined to say whether Kimbrel would remain the Cubs closer after a pair of disappointing outings. Kimbrel was notably absent from late innings on Sunday.

Tepera and Jeffress delivered.

“A lot of people don’t know Tep got up (in the bullpen) multiple times today,” Ross said. “So, for him to come in and have that nice outing … our guys were definitely engaged, locked in.”

Josh Bell pinch hit to lead off the 10th inning and hit a hard ground ball off Tepera into left field. Pirates baserunner Jacob Stallings, who started the inning on second, rounded third base and sprinted home. But Schwarber’s throw beat him there. Cubs catcher Willson Contreras held onto the ball through the collision at the plate.

Extra-innings threat eliminated. Tepera retired the next two batters in order.

Then it was Jeffress’ turn. Three up, three down.