Cubs will rely on Alzolay as multi-inning relief weapon

February 21st, 2023

MESA, Ariz. -- had his sights set on a rotation job ahead of last season. Then he stood at his locker at Spring Training a year ago, dejected while discussing a right shoulder injury that flared during a late-winter mound workout.

It took until September for Alzolay to rejoin the Cubs, not as a starter, but as a multi-inning reliever. As the North Siders map out their pitching plans for this season, that is now a role Alzolay is ready to embrace. That was his focus throughout these last winter months.

"I'm so excited to start the season," Alzolay said on Tuesday morning. "I prepared my whole offseason for that."

The Cubs have constructed a rotation that includes established arms like Marcus Stroman, Jameson Taillon and Drew Smyly. Kyle Hendricks will join them after his delayed return from his own shoulder setback. Justin Steele is also locked into a job after a breakout showing last year.

For the lone rotation vacancy, manager David Ross identified Adrian Sampson, Hayden Wesneski and Javier Assad as the main contenders. Both Keegan Thompson and Alzolay -- tested as starters in the past -- will give Chicago a pair of multi-inning leverage relievers.

"He's another guy that we're going to rely heavily on and is an important piece for us," Ross said of Alzolay.

Initially, the 27-year-old Alzolay said he wanted to suit up for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic this spring, but he decided against it after talking things over with the Cubs' staff. Given his health issues in '22 and his adjustment to relieving full-time, Alzolay prioritized staying in camp.

"You want to go represent your country," Alzolay said. "I just feel that it was better for me to stay back with our team and just spend Spring Training here with the team and approach my role right away. Don't go out and come back and see, 'OK, where am I at right now?'

"It was kind of a tough decision, because it's hard to say no to your country. It's really hard. But at the same time, I'm thinking about my career as well, and the future with the team."

Helping Alzolay's confidence going into this spring is the fact that he not only returned to the Cubs late last season but posted strong results in the process. After rejoining the staff on Sept. 17, Alzolay racked up 19 strikeouts with just two walks and a 3.38 ERA in 13 1/3 innings (six games).

Alzolay said that ending to '22 was a big mental lift.

"It was huge," he said. "My main focus, I was like, 'I need to pitch this year in the big leagues.' It was like, I don't care if I only throw five innings or whatever, but I need to finish the year out there. I need to prove to myself that I'm healthy and my arm is feeling better than before. Just to have a normal offseason."

In 2021, Alzolay logged a 4.58 ERA in 29 games (21 starts) with 128 strikeouts and 34 walks in 125 2/3 innings. The righty showed his promise in flashes, and he was hoping to build on those moments as a starter in '22. The injury last year robbed him of that opportunity.

At the same time, there is no denying the impact Alzolay could have out of the bullpen.

In the Majors, he has logged a 5.19 ERA in 130 innings as a starter, posting a 24.3 percent strikeout rate and an 8.5 percent walk rate. In 18 relief outings (42 2/3 innings), he has a 2.32 ERA with a 32.9 percent strikeout rate and a 6.6 percent walk rate. Per Statcast, Alzolay's average four-seam velocity has also been higher as a reliever (94.8 mph) than as a starter (94.0 mph).

As for his repertoire, Alzolay said he is still working on honing a version of his changeup, especially against lefty batters, in an effort to better "split the plate" with his cutter and slider. He has also been "playing around with" a sweeper slider, but he is trying to get the velocity into the 82-83 mph range to maximize horizontal movement.

And in terms of his role, Alzolay is open to anything Ross has in mind.

"Late in the game or as a long guy, it doesn't matter," Alzolay said. "I just have to find a routine where I feel comfortable and I'm not doing too much before coming out of the bullpen and getting into the game."