MESA, Ariz. -- Adbert Alzolay didn't pick up a baseball until he was 6 years old, when his grandfather introduced him to the game. Now 22, the Venezuelan right-hander is someone the Cubs are keeping an eye on.
Ranked No. 3 among Cubs prospects by MLBPipeline.com, Alzolay was pitching for the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League. He went 7-1 with a 2.98 ERA in 15 starts at Class A Myrtle Beach last season and posted a 3.03 ERA in seven starts at Double-A Tennessee.
"If he reaches his potential, he will someday be one of the five [starters], and closer to [No. 1] than five," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said of Alzolay, describing him as "an interesting high-ceiling starting pitcher."
"He's an exciting, young kid with high character and electric stuff," Epstein said. "He's got a great starter kit and will pitch at the upper levels of the farm system next year."
Alzolay has come a long way. He never considered baseball until his grandfather took him to a diamond. Alzolay played third base and the outfield, but at 13, he told his parents he was going to pitch.
"I said, 'Dad, I just want to pitch. I like to pitch,'" Alzolay said. "My father said, 'It's up to you. If you want to do it, you should try.'"
Alzolay's approach at that time was to throw as hard as he could, firing fastballs nonstop. Marwin Gonzalez's father, Mario, a scout for the Rays in Venezuela, offered Alzolay some guidance when the pitcher was 16.
"He said, 'I know you have an opportunity to sign as a professional baseball player,'" Alzolay said. "I started to practice every day, building up, building up."
He signed with Leones de Caracas, a Venezuelan Winter League team, which is where the Cubs scouts saw him.
"They called my dad, and said, 'We want to try out your son in five days,'" Alzolay said. "That was real quick. My dad talked to me and said, 'You have a great opportunity.' I was super excited."
Alzolay was one of several players at the Cubs' academy in Venezuela, and the right-hander was the first to throw.
"I was super nervous," he said. "I just threw like 12 pitches, and the scout said, 'That's it.' I said, 'Really?' After the tryout, they called my dad and said, 'We need to talk.'"
The Cubs staff had obviously seen enough of Alzolay before those 12 pitches to make a decision to sign him in December 2012. He has worked his way up, making his U.S. debut in 2014 with Class A Boise. He only threw three innings there.
"They sent me to Arizona Rookie Ball [that year] because they said, 'You're going to be a starter, and you're young and we're going to prepare you for the future,'" Alzolay said.
He's improved each season, and this year, Alzolay's fastball velocity has increased. He's learned how to use his lower body more, thanks to work with Minor League pitching coach Anderson Tavarez.
"I really felt it," Alzolay said.
During an AFL outing on Oct. 27, he struck out two batters, getting the first on a 97-mph fastball and the second on an 83-mph curve. He's still fine-tuning his changeup.
"That's my third pitch, and I need to get it ready," Alzolay said of the change. "If you want to play in the big leagues, you need to have that pitch, you need to be able to throw that pitch in any count. I can throw my fastball and breaking ball whenever I want. Sometimes with my changeup, I'm like, 'Should I throw that pitch or not?' I don't trust that pitch too much, so I'm working on that really hard."
The biggest boost in Alzolay's young career may have come from the Cubs' mental skills coaches, including Rey Fuentes and former big league outfielder Darnell McDonald. Alzolay now meditates every day.
"That's part of my routine," Alzolay said. "Last year, I was like, 'OK, I'll do meditation,' but it was kind of boring. I didn't know if I needed it. [Fuentes and McDonald] told me, 'You need to be more focused on your game. You have all the tools to be a big leaguer. If you prepare your mind as you prepare your body, you'll be a perfect baseball player.'
"I said, 'OK, I'm going to try,'" Alzolay said. "I started to do meditation and yoga at the same time. When I'm on the mound and I get in a situation, I just breathe and everything [calms] down. Meditating helps me to be in control every time, to be in the game, to be in the present all the time."
Once the AFL season ends, Alzolay will go home to Venezuela to spend the holidays with his family. Epstein didn't project Alzolay as one of the Cubs' 2018 starters, but the youngster is getting close. He knew that Epstein had mentioned his name.
"I heard about it," Alzolay said. "That's why I'm getting ready. I'm getting super prepared to be in the big leagues. I think it's time to be there."