Tyler Chatwood

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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The 2020 Cubs: Insanity, the elephant in the room at Cubs Convention

The 2020 Cubs: Insanity, the elephant in the room at Cubs Convention

Year-in and year-out, one of the most entertaining parts of Cubs Convention is the fan questions. 

Whether posed by children to Anthony Rizzo and his teammates at the Kids Only Presser or hard-hitting questions to Theo Epstein and the coaching staff, fans never cease to entertain when they get their opportunity on the mic.

That continued Saturday morning when a fan got up to ask Epstein a question halfway through his Baseball Operations panel and started innocently by thanking the front office for the 2016 World Series championship. It then delved into the fan stating his belief that the Cubs have regressed in the seasons since, particularly on offense.

"It's been written," the fan continued, "that the definition of insanity is trying to do the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Yet we're probably gonna have a very similar lineup this year to what we had last year. Can you articulate what we should expect differently and why we should get different results from that?"

The fan was alluding to the "status quo" on the Cubs roster that is becoming more and more of a reality as the start of spring training draws near. To date, the Cubs have not guaranteed a single dollar on a big-league contract in free agency and they also have not traded from their core of players or worked out an extension with anybody from the same group.

The 2019 Cubs won only 84 games and were essentially eliminated from playoffs with a week left in the regular season. It led to sweeping changes on the coaching staff — including the departure of manager Joe Maddon — and every other behind-the-scenes department within the franchise. However, the game is ultimately won and lost on the field by the players and that group has hardly changed apart from the guys the Cubs have lost to free agency (a group led by Cole Hamels and Steve Cishek and potentially Nicholas Castellanos) and via trade (Tony Kemp).

"Great question," Epstein said in response to the fan. "Well, first of all, it's not Opening day yet, so I think there's still a chance of some changes. We hope there will be. This is an offseason where we knew we were gonna be more active in trades than free agency, but the bottom line is: words don't matter, actions do. But the fact that we haven't been active yet makes that a very valid question."

Epstein then launched into a long-winded answer quoting himself on how development isn't linear, and used the up-and-down career Ian Happ has had to date. The Cubs believe there is more in the tank for a guy like Happ, who barely contributed in 2019 while spending the first four months of the season making adjustments in Triple-A Iowa.

Kyle Schwarber was another example Epstein pointed out, referencing the changes the left-handed slugger made that led to a monster second half of the season.

"I agree with you," Epstein went on. "I think, objectively speaking, we should be adding to this team and doing everything we can to make it better. There are some obstacles we're trying to fight through in that regard. But don't give up on the players that have been here that might've driven you insane at times watching them, because I really think a lot of them are on an upward trajectory and will make us proud this year."

About 15 minutes later in the same session Saturday morning, another fan asked Epstein to speak as candidly as he could about the payroll issues facing the Cubs. 

The president of baseball operations admitted he is trying to be as transparent as possible, but isn't able to go into exact detail on the payroll because it puts the Cubs in a compromised position as they negotiate with agents in the open market and other teams on the trade front.

At the moment, the Cubs are projected for a roster that will go slightly over the $208 million luxury tax threshold for the second straight season.

"Clearly how we position ourselves relative to the collective bargaining tax and the impact of going over multiple years in a row and the effects of that long term is a factor in the offseason," Epstein said. "It's one of those obstacles that we talked about that we have to find a way to navigate around.

"But I'm gonna be honest and self-critical — if we had done our jobs a lot better the last couple years, those same obstacles might be there, but they wouldn't be as pressing and we'd have a little bit more flexibility."

For example, the Tyler Chatwood contract hasn't really worked out for the Cubs to date. He's owed $13 million in 2020 and while he had a resurgent season last year, that's still a lot of money for a guy who may not even be ticketed for the rotation this summer.

Same with Craig Kimbrel. In early June when the Cubs signed the dynamic closer, it looked like a no-brainer addition to shore up the weakest part of the roster — not only for 2019, but for the next two years after. Now, after a half season that was plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness, Kimbrel is on the books for $16 million in 2020 and yet comes with plenty of question marks.

If the Cubs didn't make those two deals, they'd have two more holes on the pitching staff, but also a lot more financial flexibility to fill those spots. It also speaks to the lack of pitching development under Epstein's regime, which has forced the front office to continually devote a lot of resources into signing pitchers instead of supplementing the staff with homegrown arms.

Couple the money issues with the fact the projected roster has lost a lot of talent from the end of last season and the nearing free agency for the likes of Javy Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, and Epstein's front office has been left in a spot this winter where they have to "serve three masters," as he put it Saturday. 

They're still trying to contend in 2020, but they don't want to put themselves in a further bind financially and they'd ideally add pieces that would help the team both in the short-term and the long-term. That includes patience on the trade market as they wait for another team to come closer to their asking price on Bryant or any of the other available players.

None of it is what the fans want to hear, but it's the reality of the situation the Cubs find themselves in.

"This is one of those winters where it's really hard to thread the needle," Epstein said. "We're doing the best we can. I would say to hang with us and hopefully by the time Opening Day rolls around, we've improved the 2020 team and we've done some things that maybe don't improve the '20 team, but ensures a better future. And then to our bosses and for our future, we've also done a responsible job financially to set ourselves up for long-term fiscal health."

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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.