Why Adbert Alzolay is Cubs’ X factor in rebuilt rotation originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
MESA, Arizona — Call him the Cubs’ X factor this year. Call him the kid with the stuff to become this team’s best starter. Call him the only hope for the farm system to avoid a full decade of futility in producing a bona fide starting pitcher.
Just don’t call Adbert Alzolay in the bullpen this year. Because he doesn’t plan to be there unless it’s to warm up for a start.
“At this point I know what I can do in this game,” said the 25-year-old right-hander — who called a spot in the opening rotation “the ultimate goal” of a spring training that already has begun with a confident bounce in the rookie’s step.
By now, Cubs fans are familiar with Alzolay, after a brief 2019 debut with mixed results and a 2020 role in a pandemic-shortened season that produced impressive results in another small sample size.
But their most prominent pitching prospect in recent years wants to make sure everybody knows his name in 2021. And if he can pull that off, the hardest-throwing pitcher in a rotation mix of mostly finesse guys could have an outsized impact on the fortunes of a team that lost four veteran starters from last year’s division winner, including the Cy Young runner-up.
“So my focus in the offseason was just to get better in the things that I needed to work on with my body, to work on strengthening my shoulder.
“I know what I can do with the ball in my hand. So now it’s just to keep [improving] the mental game for those big moments.”
It’s also about workloads coming off a 60-game season and how the front office and manager David Ross map out plans to navigate 162 games with a rebuilt pitching staff that includes one pitcher who threw even 70 innings last season.
“I would love to give you all that information,” Ross said “But, one, I’m not good at math, and, two … I honestly don’t know.”
Alzolay, who split time between the Cubs and alternate-site South Bend with no minor-league season to work with, pitched just 21 1/3 in 2020.
But armed with a 95 mph fastball and a nasty slider he developed in South Bend and unleashed on big-league opponents in September, Alzolay has the kind of power stuff that figures to make Cubs officials salivate when putting together those plans as they look at the rest of their rebuilt rotation.
Ross has said recently re-acquired Jake Arrieta slots in the top three of a five-man rotation, presumably along with 2020 Opening Day starter Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies.
After that? Veteran Trevor Williams, added a few weeks ago as a free agent, and Alec Mills, the holdover with a 2020 no-hitter, aren’t far behind.
Of course, every team in baseball figures to need at least a de facto rotation of six regular starters and probably seven or eight that get rotated in for workload concerns alone.
“That’s why we’ve got to come here to spring training ready to compete,” said Alzolay, who has prepared only for rotation work as he eyed spring training and the 2021 season this offseason — and will let the coaches and managers determine any workload limits.
It will definitely be a significant consideration for the Cubs in whatever form Alzolay’s role takes. He hasn’t reached 70 innings in a season at any level since 2017, in part because of a series of injuries, most recently biceps inflammation in 2019.
That’s where a lot of his work over the winter was directed.
“The whole main focus the whole time is just being in the rotation,” Alzolay said. “I’ve been preparing my whole body and my mental game to be in that position right now.”
Ross isn’t committing to anything at this point. But he did rave about Alzolay’s 2020 development, especially the way he refined that slider and used it so effectively, so quickly, against big-league hitters — including an eight-strikeout performance in his five-inning start in the season finale against the White Sox.
“I think it all kind of fell in line with him, and I think that’s where all the high expectations come from him that you see and from us,” Ross said. “He’s a guy that I think we’re all excited about.”
Not to mention that stuff. All that stuff.
Said Alzolay: “I feel like bringing the stuff to the game is going to be fun.”