Adbert Alzolay spent most of last season at the Cubs' alternate training site, where he invested a lot of energy into developing a slider. When the pitcher earned innings for Chicago down the stretch, he flashed a new, real weapon.
As Opening Day approaches, the Cubs are again weighing Alzolay's ongoing development with the prospect of him helping the Major League staff now. And on top of that, Chicago is looking for the best way to manage the righty's workload in the months ahead.
"He hasn't had a lot of innings," Cubs manager David Ross said on Wednesday. "I think that's the main thing for us, is continue to monitor his innings and keep him healthy and on the development path. And yeah, he is a guy that is really going to help us out.
"And so, balancing that with his development process, with how the roster shakes out, all that stuff comes into play."
In Thursday night's game vs. the Dodgers, Alzolay gave the Cubs' decision-makers plenty to think about with a solid 61-pitch showing against a Dodgers lineup full of regulars. The righty opened his outing by striking out Mookie Betts looking with a fastball up in the zone. Alzolay blew a similar pitch by Cody Bellinger in the second. Then in the third, the pitcher's slider netted swinging strikeouts of AJ Pollock and Chris Taylor.
In terms of the Opening Day roster picture, the Cubs learned Tuesday that Alzolay is expected to have a fourth Minor League option for 2021, according to a source. That bit of contractual fine print has not been made official by Major League Baseball or the MLB Players Association, but it is an important detail.
If Alzolay had no options, his place on Chicago's Opening Day staff was all but assured as a back-end rotation arm or a multi-inning reliever. Now, the Cubs have the ability to send him to the alternate training site to begin the season without exposing him to waivers.
"Our roster decisions haven't been made yet," Ross reminded on Wednesday.
While that is true, if the Cubs want to manage Alzolay's innings on the front end of the season, sending him to the alternate training site is the logical move. He has only topped 100 professional innings twice in his career -- and not since 2017.
After his most recent Cactus League outing on March 13, Alzolay said his focus was firmly on being with the Cubs on Opening Day.
"In my mind, I'm going to make the roster," Alzolay said. "I don't really put other things on my mind. Those things are negative to me, so I don't try to put that on my mind. I just try to control what I can do on the field."
The 26-year-old Alzolay put that focus on display Thursday night, showing off the behind-the-scenes work of the past week-plus over 3 2/3 innings against Los Angeles. He threw in a "B" game on Friday, giving him a controlled setting to focus on some mechanical adjustments. He returned with five strikeouts, one walk and one hit allowed (an outing-ending double to Bellinger in the fourth). The two runs charged to Alzolay's line came after his exit.
That performance came after Alzolay surrendered eight runs (seven earned) on seven hits in just four innings in his earlier Cactus League outings.
Through three Cactus League appearances, Alzolay has surrendered eight runs (seven earned) on seven hits in just four innings. He has three strikeouts, three walks, two homers allowed and one hit batsman. In that March 13 outing against the Royals, Alzolay was charged with three runs (two earned) in 1 2/3 innings.
"The main thing that he's working on is continuing to execute pitches," Ross said. "Making sure that slider shape stays where it was at last year. I think that was a real turning point for him in his career, and the pitch shape that he developed and worked on and really got outs."
Alzolay logged a 2.95 ERA in 21 1/3 innings with the Cubs last season, but that "turning point" came in his last two appearances. In nine innings combined, he struck out 15, walked four and allowed two runs on four hits. The new slider helped give him an option beyond his curve, changeup, four-seamer and sinker.
The Cubs look to have the top four slots of their rotation set with Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, Zach Davies and Trevor Williams. Given the uncharted waters ahead for pitchers, Chicago's fifth spot could be a bit more fluid as the season progresses.
Alzolay entered camp as a leading contender for the No. 5 role, along with Alec Mills (out of options) and Shelby Miller (non-roster invitee). Mills ranked third in innings for the Cubs in 2020 (62 1/3) and has been steadily built up this spring. Alzolay has done a lot of work outside Cactus League games.
And then there is Miller, who has opened eyes as a versatile option for the rotation or bullpen. The righty joined the Cubs as a reclamation project and has flashed a 95-mph fastball and a new-look slider.
"Shelby's throwing the ball great. He's on the radar," Ross said. "I've talked to him about being a swing guy. I've talked to him about one inning. I've talked to him about multiple innings. And I've talked to him about starting. I think that's a huge value that he brings to our team."
If the Cubs ultimately decide to start Alzolay at the alternate training site to continue his development process, that could open the door for Miller or another reliever to make the Opening Day roster. That is, of course, where Alzolay hopes to be come April 1.
"He's had success and has built on that and is growing," Ross said. "So, I'm glad he believes he belongs on the team. I believe he's going to be a really good Major League pitcher."