Coming into the 2017 season, the Cubs had two clear top 100 prospects in Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease, both of whom were sent to the White Sox in the Jose Quintana deal. What’s left in the Cubs system much less impressive than it was at the end of the 2014 season. Some minor leaguers managed to stand out from pack, however. Right-handed pitcher Jose Albertos and shortstop Aramis Ademan helped themselves with strong seasons. Right-handed pitcher Oscar De La Cruz gave Cubs fans something to be excited about when he was healthy (which unfortunately wasn’t very often) and third baseman Wladimir Galindo has an exciting bat that was unfortunately silenced by a leg injury in June.
But all four of those players were at least on the prospect radar before this season. Right-handed Venezuelan pitcher Adbert Alzolay was barely mentioned in pre-season prospect outlooks. While Alzolay was always considered a prospect, he was one of those listed in the “others to watch for” categories that show up after a Top 20 or Top 30 list. To be honest, before this season there was nothing to make anyone think that Alzolay’s ceiling anything more than a serviceable middle reliever on the major league level. Even that was a longshot. But the 22-year-old made some adjustments in the offseason that paid off in a big way this year, and Alzolay now must be in the discussion as the Cubs top prospect.
The Cubs signed Alzolay as a 17-year-old out of Venezuela in November 2012. If you know about international signings, you know all the top Latin ballplayers sign as 16-year-olds and as close to July 1 as the decision can be made. So Alzolay wasn’t considered much more than minor league roster filler. But he surpassed all expectations in Venezuela, posting a 1.07 ERA in 2013. He struck out almost a batter an inning but even better, he had a K:BB ratio of just over 6:1. That earned Alzolay a trip stateside in 2014 where he posted a pretty crappy ERA of 8.51 in 24.1 innings in Mesa. But ERA is a pretty poor measure of a pitcher’s effectiveness in the low minors and Alzolay struck out over a batter an inning and had a better than 2:1 K:BB ratio.
Moving up one level a year, Alzolay posted a strong tandem starting season in Eugene in 2015, going 6-2 with a 2.04 ERA in 53 innings. Alzolay struck out 49 batters in the Northwest League that season and walked just 15.
That 2015 season got Alzolay at least noticed, and even team president Theo Epstein said Alzolay was a guy to watch in 2016 in his post-season press conference. But despite that vote of confidence, there were some reasons to think that Alzolay’s ceiling was limited. For one, he’s just 6’0” and there is a longstanding belief that short right-handers are destined for the bullpen. Plus, his fastball only sat 92-93 mph that lost velocity as he went deeper into games His curveball was nothing special and his changeup was below average.
Sure enough, Alzolay had a rough 2016 season in low-A South Bend. The good news was despite his size, he pitched 120 innings and he didn’t miss a start. Alzolay also kept his walk rate low. The bad news is that he posted a 4.34 ERA and only struck out 81 batters. On top of that, his “strand rate” was a pretty terrible 65%. In the majors, we often credit that to bad luck, but in Alzolay’s case, it was also clear that he was letting himself get rattled with men on base. He was overthinking everything and second-guessing himself on the mound.
The Cubs worked on Alzolay in two areas last offseason. One, pitching coach Anderson Tavares worked on altering Alzolay’s delivery so that he was able to use his legs more effectively. The result was that he was able to add about three miles per hour onto his fastball, which now sits 95-96 mph. He’s also better able to maintain that velocity deeper into games. That makes his so-so curve and changeup look better by comparison as well.
The other area that Alzolay worked on is his mound presence with mental skills coach Darnell McDonald. McDonald had Alzolay work faster, which gave hitters less time to think about what pitch was coming and even more important, didn’t give Alzolay time to overthink things. If you ever watch Alzolay pitch, you’ll note that he’s probably the fastest worker in the system right now. McDonald also got Alzolay to start meditation, which allowed him to be more aware of his body and better able to shut out distractions.
The results were apparent right out of the gate this season. Pitching Opening Night for the High-A Myrtle Beach Pelicans, Alzolay gave up two home runs in just five innings. But that was two of the three hits and both of the runs he surrendered and he was the winning pitcher. Alzolay didn’t allow the home runs to affect the next at-bat like it might have in 2016.
Alzolay went 2-0 with a 2.49 ERA in April, striking out 21 and walking six in 25.1 innings in High-A. But his best game of the season came in game one of a doubleheader on May 10 when he came within two outs of a seven-inning no-hitter. Instead, Alzolay had to settle for a two-hit complete game shutout.
Alzolay was named a Carolina League All-Star and made his last start in High-A on July 2. His final totals in High-A were 7-1 with a 2.98 ERA in 15 starts.
After that, Alzolay was off to Double-A. His first start for the Smokies was an impressive one. Although he only went five innings, Alzolay gave up just two hits and no runs to Montgomery. Even better, Alzolay struck out a career-high tying ten batters and he walked just one.
Alzolay made seven starts for Tennessee and posted pretty similar statistics to Myrtle Beach. He was 0-3 with a 3.03 ERA in 32.2 innings. He struck out 30 and walked 12. His final stats between the two teams was 9-4 with a 2.99 ERA. He pitched 114.1 innings, struck out 108 and walked 34.
With that, Alzolay can no longer be considered an under-the-radar prospect. Baseball America just named him the 16th-best prospect in the loaded Carolina League. When the Cubs included Dylan Cease in the Quintana deal, ESPN’s Keith Law said that Alzolay was the better prospect at the time anyway. (You’ll need paid subscriptions to read either of the last two links. Sorry.)
Alzolay is certain to be added to the 40-man roster this winter as he will be Rule 5 eligible. Whether he starts the 2018 season in Double-A Tennessee or Triple-A Iowa is still too far away to know yet, it is clear that the plan is for him to be pitching in Iowa some time next season. From there, he’ll be on the 40-man and ready to fill in for any vacancies in the Cubs starting rotation next year.
Having said that, there are some reasons to be cautious about Alzolay’s upside. His curve can be pretty good at times, but he’s not as consistent with it as he needs to be. His changeup is still below average. He hasn’t grown any, so there is still that thing about short right-handers being destined for the bullpen. That’s a rule of thumb and not a commandment, but for every short righty like Greg Maddux, Roy Oswalt or Tim Lincecum, there are dozens who fail to withstand the rigors of starting in the major leagues.
But whether or not you think Alzolay is the top prospect in the Cubs system at the moment, it is likely that he’s one that could make an impact at the major league level next season. For that alone, he’s going to be one to watch closely in 2018. (If Theo doesn’t trade him like everyone else, of course.)