The Cubs minor leagues have produced some great bats in recent years: Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Albert Almora, Javy Baez. Where the Cubs have struggled to develop talent has been on the pitching staff. Where that might change is top prospect Adbert Alzolay. The right-hander, who signed out of Venezuela in 2012, has really taken a leap forward in the past couple years and is probably the Cubs current best chance to get an impact starting pitcher out of their farm system.
Position: Right-handed pitcher
2017 Stats (with High-A Myrtle Beach/Double-A Tennessee):
High-A: 81.2 IP, 2.98 ERA, 8.6 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 86.1 DRA-
Double-A: 32.2 IP, 3.03 ERA, 8.3 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 107.4 DRA-
Year in Review: After an up and down, but pretty successful 2016 full season debut, Alzolay took a really nice step forward in 2017 across two levels. The 22 year old right-hander showed pretty good command while striking out just under a batter per inning. The stuff took a definite step forward. The fastball sits in the low to mid 90s, but Alzolay can touch 97-98 in short stints. He has a potential plus slider and developing change, but the mechanics are solid. At High A, he held opponents to just a .237 TAv, and that number stayed low at AA with just a .240 opponent TAv.
A key factor, and a number that you like to see, is that the 22 year old reached the 120-inning mark for the second consecutive year (including the Arizona Fall League in 2017). A reasonable expectation for him in 2018 is to get to 150 innings pitched. That would be a great step towards becoming a longer-term starter. Despite not getting a ton of ground balls (39% at High A and 36% at Double A), Alzolay did manage to limit the home runs. He kept the HR/9 under 1 in his time at Myrtle Beach, and he didn’t give up a single long ball in Tennessee. At his best, Alzolay is a guy who can miss some bats and limit hard contact. With the Cubs defense being the quality it is at the major-league level, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Alzolay’s number hold at the next level with the great defense behind him.
Looking Ahead: Alzolay might be the single most important minor leaguer in the Cubs system. With the current front office struggling to find and develop amateur starting pitchers, it is important for them to hit on at least one guy, and Alzolay is currently their best chance. His name will certainly pop up in trade discussions this off-season and at the deadline, but I think the Cubs would be hard pressed to move him. Not only would they struggle to move him because their main need is pitching, but I also think Theo Epstein is a proud guy. He knows that the main criticism of him in his Cubs tenure has been the inability to develop pitching and he’s going to want to prove that he can do it.
The biggest thing for Alzolay in 2018 is to prove that he can continue to hold up health-wise while adding additional innings. He should start the 2018 campaign in Tennessee again, with triple-A Iowa being clearly ahead of him if all goes according to plan. From there, he might get a chance to start a couple of games in the big leagues, but I think an August/September bullpen audition could be in his future. It would be a chance to get a high stuff arm into the bullpen down the stretch while also somewhat limiting his innings late in the year and giving him a taste of a pennant race. With him already being on the 40-man roster, I’d be surprised to not see him in Chicago in September—that is, unless things don’t go well regarding either health or performance.
If Alzolay can stay healthy yet again in 2018, I see no reason why he shouldn’t be competing for the MLB rotation as early as 2019. If the changeup continues to develop, he should have a serviceable third pitch to go along with two potential plus offerings in his fastball and his slider. With his mechanics and average command, I think he could be, at worst, a back of the rotation starter with mid-rotation upside. Look for Alzolay to be Epstein’s first drafted (or signed) and developed pitcher to stick with the Cubs in the rotation.