Why Alzolay is emerging as leader throughout organization

March 23rd, 2024

MESA, Ariz. -- A group of Minor Leaguers emerged from a door inside the Cubs’ complex on Friday morning, wearing Cubbie blue caps and gowns and wide smiles. They had just finished a graduation ceremony after completing the team’s English language program.

Part of their morning celebration included some words from Cubs pitcher , who is an emerging leader not only within the Major League group, but throughout the organization. And as Alzolay scanned the room and saw the faces looking his way and listening to his advice, he found himself reflecting on his own journey.

“I saw myself sitting in the same chairs that they were sitting in today,” Alzolay said on Friday. “It just makes you proud.”

From teammates to coaches to staffers throughout the Cubs, the common description of Alzolay is that he's a connector of people. After only spending a few weeks with Alzolay, Cubs manager Craig Counsell was confident enough earlier this spring to say the reliever possesses “true leadership qualities” in how he interacts with those around him.

A group of Minor Leaguers who graduated the Cubs' English language program on Friday alongside teachers and the program's education coordinator.Chicago Cubs

Alzolay smiles when told of Counsell’s comments and of how people view the pitcher as “a bridge” who helps avoid isolating cliques from forming in the clubhouse. He smiles, because that has been his goal, especially when veterans in the past -- Yu Darvish and Jon Lester, among them -- told Alzolay they saw that potential in him at a young age.

“They told me,” Alzolay said. “They said, ‘You can be a leader with what you do not only on the field, but how you treat people, how you connect with everyone, how you connect with the locker room guys, how you connect with the clubbies, with the grounds crew guys. I just feel like I took that. I embraced it.”

Alex Suarez, who is the Cubs’ senior director of international player development and operations, played an important role in getting to know Alzolay and signing him as a young prospect out of Venezuela late in 2012. There was, of course, the promising fastball and impressive breaking ball. But Suarez also loved Alzolay’s easygoing but driven personality.

“The confidence with him was probably the most impressive thing that stood out,” Suarez said. “He was facing an older group of players and he had no fear whatsoever.”

That trait held true away from the field, too.

Once Alzolay was in the Cubs’ system and playing in the United States, he made a point to improve his English. He learned some as a high schooler -- enough to make conversation -- but Alzolay wanted to sharpen both his speaking and reading skills. He helped his Spanish-speaking teammates with ordering food and encouraged them to connect with their American teammates.

Alzolay said he was never worried about pronouncing something incorrectly, because he trusted that his English-speaking teammates (long-time friend Justin Steele being one of them) would help him out.

That was part of the message he offered in Friday’s meeting with the grads.

“I told them today. I'm like, ‘We're always afraid to make mistakes. Don’t be afraid,’” Alzolay said. “‘[Teammates] will help you to get better with your language, but we've got to have the will to go to them and start making conversation with them.’

“I said, ‘That's how you create the bond. That's how you get everyone connected in the locker room.’”

Alzolay’s energetic personality, combined with his ability to speak two languages, helped him form lasting friendships with players from all parts of the roster and different parts of the globe as he climbed Chicago’s farm system. Now, as an established Major Leaguer, Alzolay also has the increased confidence to keep stepping up in that regard.

His efforts have not gone unnoticed by his Cubs teammates.

“He's someone that has great relationships with all parts of the clubhouse,” Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner said. “A lot of guys, you stick with your position players or pitchers. It's just kind of natural to have that. And bullpens can kind of do their own thing, which is totally fine.

“But to have personalities like him that bridge people from all different places, and pitchers and position players, it's really cool. And there’s also just the fact that he's been with the Cubs for so long. I think that's really meaningful.”

It was certainly meaningful to Suarez, who listened to Alzolay speak on Friday morning and could remember that young kid he signed so many years ago.

“As an organization, we're proud. It's like, ‘You're coming full circle,’” Suarez said. “‘We had an idea that you could be this guy, but at the same time, for you to be that type of person, that has to come from you.’ He's got a God-given ability to be a leader.”