Okay, raise your hand if you thought the Cubs bullpen could have done a better job of throwing strikes last season. No, not you, Evan, you need to be able to use both hands to type. I guess the rest of you can put yours down now as well. Thanks for participating.
If you didn’t raise your hand, you either didn’t watch the Cubs very often or you’ve got at least a mild form of oppositional defiant disorder. Or you’re just lazy, which is one thing Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer cannot be as they head into the winter looking to retool a bullpen that had MLB’s highest walk percentage (11.2%) and second-highest BB/9 (4.25) last season.
“[The walks are] sort of systemic across the board,” Epstein told 670 The Score’s Bernstein and Goff. “So we have to find a way to address that going forward, and we will. Some of it is obviously personnel based, and it will be important for us to bring in some reliable strike-throwers going forward out of the pen.”
We’re going to prioritize finding some pure strike-throwers out of the bullpen. Theo Epstein
Epstein publicly took the blame for not assembling a relief corps that could be counted on to throw strikes consistently, but he also spoke of personnel and approach issues. Cubs pitchers, he said, were not being aggressive enough when behind early in the count. That was painfully obvious throughout the playoffs, as relievers continued to be cute rather than attacking hitters.
“We’re going to prioritize finding some pure strike-throwers out of the bullpen,” Epstein reiterated in his end-of-season presser. “But the guys we have, we’ve got to find a ways to get them locked in.”
While all that talk of fixing their issues through personnel and approach was primarily about the pitchers themselves, recent events tell us that the pitching coach may have borne much of the blame. But we’ve already talked enough about why Chris Bosio was let go, so let’s move on.
Elite pitching is expensive and bullpens are fickle chimeras, all of which makes it difficult to put together a solid relief core. Ideally, you’ll happen upon a failed starter who can you convert to a lights-out reliever on the cheap. Better yet, you develop your own stud(s) from within the organization. Too bad the Cubs haven’t really been able to do that in Epstein’s tenure.
Enter Adbert Alzolay.
Signed as an 18-year-old back in 2013, Alzolay could be one of the first products of this new Cubs regime to really make an impact with the big-league club. For all the hype surrounding the parade of position players over the last few years, pitching development has remained Epstoyer’s bugaboo. Under the watchful eyes of Jason McLeod (senior VP of scouting and development) and Jaron Madison (director of player development), that could be changing soon.
The 22-year-old (he’ll turn 23 on March 1) from Venezuela worked strictly as a starter for Myrtle Beach and Tennessee this past season, logging 114.1 innings across 22 total starts. The Cubs may keep him in the rotation for the immediate future, but he has pitched in relief and could be an excellent bullpen arm long-term. To wit, Alzolay has made four relief appearances so far in the Arizona Fall League, allowing one run on two hits and two walks while striking out eight in as many innings.
Alzolay works quickly and is very aggressive on the mound…He also has roughly a 3:1 K/BB ratio for his professional career.
Armed with a mid-90’s fastball, a decent curve, and a meh changeup, Alzolay doesn’t really have the repertoire one expects of an effective big-league starter (with full understanding that he’s still young and can grow as a pitcher). But he works quickly and is very aggressive on the mound, attacking hitters and preventing them from really getting their bearings against him. He also has roughly a 3:1 K/BB ratio for his professional career.
In addition to working with pitching coach Anderson Tavares on the physical aspects of his game, Alzolay has incorporated the teachings of the Cubs’ mental skills programs to improve his performance. Heeding the advice of mental skills coordinator Darnell McDonald, Alzolay credits daily meditation — which he learned to appreciate after initially finding it boring — with helping him to relax and maintain focus on the mound.
Let’s run back what we’ve seen so far: elite velocity, works quickly, attacks hitters, throws strikes, composed on the mound. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that’s exactly what Epstein said the Cubs are looking for this winter.
Let’s run back what we’ve seen so far: elite velocity, works quickly, attacks hitters, throws strikes. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that’s exactly what Epstein said the Cubs are looking for this winter.
Ah, but I do know better, both about the Cubs’ desires and Alzolay’s readiness. Or at least I think I do when it comes to the latter. Despite already logging five seasons in the organization and showing great consistency across two levels (plus the AFL) in 2017, Alzolay has pitched fewer than 33 innings above A-ball. And, as I mentioned earlier, the Cubs may not be ready to give up on him as a starter just yet.
Watch for Alzolay this spring in Mesa and follow what he does at either Tennessee or Iowa when the 2018 season opens. If he can maintain his current trajectory, his aggressive approach and blazing fastball could be on display at Wrigley by July or August.The righty’s future could well be determined by what the Cubs do with the rotation this offseason, though. Should they manage to lock up that young, cost-controlled unicorn in addition to a solid vet, the lack of need could hasten Alzolay’s move to the ‘pen. Either way, we’re probably not talking about anything immediate.