A shortage of available funds has left the Cubs unable to pursue a proven vet like Dallas Keuchel, who figures to command in the mid eight figures per season. It may have even kept them away from untested import Kwang-hyun Kim, who they’d reportedly shown interest in before he signed with the Cardinals for just $8 million over two years. That means turning to internal options, one of the most prominent of which figures to be Adbert Alzolay.
But if recent comments from Jed Hoyer are any indication, the Cubs may prefer to experiment with a the young righty’s usage. As Bleacher Nation‘s Bryan Smith pointed out on Twitter, 2020 is Alzolay’s last option year and gives the Cubs a chance to really determine which role is best for him long term. Connecting a few dots between recent history and Hoyer’s words, it seems as though the bullpen is the most likely destination.
“We have very high hopes for him as a pitcher,” Hoyer told Tony Andracki and other media members at the Winter Meetings last week. “That’s been 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.”
The biggest injury in question occurred in 2018, when a lat strain shut him down after less than 40 innings with Triple-A Iowa and may have prevented his MLB debut. Alzolay got a late start in 2019, but electrified Wrigley Field when he entered to face the Mets in relief on June 20 for the first of his four MLB appearances. But shortly after being optioned back to Iowa in a roster shuffle, Alzolay left his July 17 start early missed a little over two weeks what what the Cubs called biceps soreness.
Though he’s worked exclusively as a starter in the minors, his lack of a consistent third pitch and durability concerns weigh heavily against him doing so in Chicago. A big part of that stellar debut performance was the changeup, a pitch Alzolay has long been trying to develop into a legitimate option. Should he get his offspeed offering to the point where it can reliably offset his mid-90’s fastball and biting curve, the Cubs could easily count on to start.
If he’s not able to rely on the change, however, it seems that a bulk relief or swingman role is in the cards. That would make sense if the Cubs opt to try Tyler Chatwood as a starter again, or even if they go with Alec Mills or Colin Rea. The latter feels like a solid possibility after being added to the 40-man roster in the wake of last season’s Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year award.
And while Jon Lester isn’t about to let anyone count him out, the aging lefty is no longer the workhorse who anchored the rotation when he first arrived. His 31 starts this past season were his fewest since 2011 (he had 32 several times) and his 171.2 innings were his lowest since 2007 while also marking his third straight season under 200 innings. The other Cubs starters aren’t exactly known for going deep into games either, so a multi-inning flamethrower isn’t a bad idea.
Though Hoyer said nothing definitive when discussing Alzolay’s potential role, he hinted very strongly that the bullpen will factor heavily. That could all change based on what other non-roster invitees the Cubs sign to minor-league deals this winter, but read below how Hoyer phrased it and see if you don’t agree that there’s probably already a plan in place.
“I have no doubt that he can contribute to our team next year,” Hoyer said. “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.”
Maybe that’s just my confirmation bias showing, since I’ve been touting Alzolay as a reliever for over two years now. As much as we’d all like to see the Cubs develop a little homegrown rotation help, logic needs to rule in these situations. Based on his profile and the way the roster sets up, working primarily out of the ‘pen would provide solid support for the starting five while allowing Alzolay a little more leeway to hone the changeup.
It also leaves open a return to the rotation, whether it’s as a sixth starter or injury replacement, thus affording the Cubs a chance to see him in different settings. There’s almost certainly no set role in place, so expect to see Alzolay deployed situationally as David Ross sees fit. Then expect immediate complaints on social media about that deployment. Oh boy, this is going to be fun.