Adbert Alzolay

David Ross names first three probable starting pitchers for spring training games

David Ross names first three probable starting pitchers for spring training games

David Ross is wasting no time when it comes to the competition for the Cubs’ fifth rotation spot.

Alec Mills, Tyler Chatwood and Adbert Alzolay will start the Cubs’ first three spring training games, Ross told reporters in Arizona on Thursday. The three are competing for Cole Hamels' vacated rotation spot, with Colin Rea being an outside candidate.

Chatwood is the favorite to win the job — Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy suggested as much last week. The 30-year-old infamously struggled with his command as a starter in 2018 and was removed from the rotation by season’s end. He bounced back in 2019, working as a long reliever and occasional spot starter.

2018: 5.30 ERA, 8.25 BB/9, 19.6 BB%, 95 BB in 103 2/3 IP
2019: 3.76 ERA, 4.34 BB/9, 11.4 BB%, 37 BB in 76 2/3 IP

Mills impressed in limited big-league action last season, sporting a 2.75 ERA (4.19 FIP) in nine games (4 starts). He stepped up big last September in place of an ailing Hamels, tossing 4 2/3 shutout innings in a heartbreaking loss against the Cardinals.

Alzolay made four appearances last season with mixed results in his two starts:

June 25: 4 2/3 IP, 1 H, 1 R/1 ER, 4 BB/4K
July 1: 2 2/3 IP, 10 H, 7 R/7 ER, 1 BB/3K

The 24-year-old missed most of the 2018 minor-league season with a lat strain and his career-high for innings is 120 1/3 (2016). Alzolay views himself as a starting pitcher but wants to help the team any way he can. He also admitted he could have an innings limit, but it depends on how his body feels.

“2018, I got hurt and then last year — including stand up games and all that — I probably got 200 innings,” Alzolay said last month. “Probably won’t throw more than [that in 2020]. Probably [have some limitations]. We’ll see. To me, if I’m feeling good, I feel great and I can keep going, I will.

“My first goal is stay healthy the whole time from here until October. And then just help the team in whatever they need me to do. That’s my whole goal this year.”

Even if Chatwood wins the rotation spot, Mills and Alzolay could make the Opening Day roster as relievers and make at least a few starts this season. Alzolay has minor-league options remaining, so he could also start the year in Triple-A Iowa's rotation.

Mills is out of minor-league options, so he'd be the leading candidate to fill Chatwood's role in the bullpen.

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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.

How Adbert Alzolay fits into Cubs September pitching picture

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USA TODAY

How Adbert Alzolay fits into Cubs September pitching picture

It's entirely possible that the next time we see Adbert Alzolay pitch in a Cubs uniform is a mirror image of his debut: Piggybacking Tyler Chatwood as the long relief option out of the bullpen.

Except this time, Alzolay probably won't receive a standing ovation and tip his cap to cheering Cubs fans (but considering the Cubs are about to play a four-game series in Milwaukee this weekend, that's actually possible).

The Cubs called the 24-year-old rookie back up to the big leagues Monday and they plan to utilize him mostly as a long relief option. But he could be in the mix to make a spot start if Yu Darvish needs more time to heal from his forearm issue and can't take his scheduled start Saturday.

It's probably more likely Tyler Chatwood would get the ball to start that game if the Cubs need it after starting on short notice Sunday at Wrigley Field and impressing his manager. However, Chatwood still isn't stretched out, having spent almost the entire season working out of the bullpen, so a long reliever like Alzolay might be needed. 

The Cubs won't want to push Alzolay too hard this month after he pitched just 39.2 innings a season ago while dealing with injury and is already at 80.2 innings total this year (between Triple-A and MLB).

After being sent back down to Triple-A in early July, Alzolay dealt with some biceps tendinitis, forcing him out for a couple weeks. When he returned, the Cubs kept him as a starter, but he never pitched more than 4.2 innings at a time, even when he had a no-hitter going his last time out (Aug. 28). 

He said he is feeling no ill effects from the biceps injury and struck out 31 batters in his final 21.2 innings in Iowa with a 3.32 ERA.

"I'm feeling back to normal — 100 percent," Alzolay said. "Just a little biceps things going on [earlier], but other than that, everything has been good. I'm feeling perfect. Back to normal, executing my pitches."

After a much-hyped debut, Alzolay said he wasn't upset at all when he was demoted back to Iowa and understood the team's reasoning. He also was grateful for the learning experience he had while in the big leagues — which included a really rough start in Pittsburgh (7 ER in 2.2 innings) — and feels a lot more comfortable this time around in the MLB clubhouse.

He's ready to help the team however they need him. The Cubs bullpen looks to have plenty of options down the stretch, but Alzolay's stuff (including a mid-90s fastball) could play in short bursts as well as longer outings.

"He'll do anything, We're not looking for him to start right now, obviously," said Maddon, who remains hopeful Darvish won't need to miss another start. "When you utilize him out of the 'pen, probably would be in a longer role. Probably, but I wouldn't run away from it otherwise if it's necessary. 

"If he pitches, you'd have to give him the proper amount of time to reboot and then move it from there. That would be it. He would be primarily long, but game late, if other guys have been utilized, would not run away from him."