What is the status of Cubs top pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay? Will he be ready for the start of the season? And how might he help the Major League team this season?
-- Keith B., Chicago
We'll have a better sense of how Alzolay -- ranked as the Cubs' No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline -- looks throughout Spring Training, but he is not expected to have any restrictions. The righty should be fine for the start of the season, with Triple-A Iowa as his destination.
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For background, Alzolay, who will turn 24 on March 1, was limited to eight starts last season due to a strained right lat. He did not need surgery, but his campaign was over by the end of May. Alzolay might have worked his way onto the radar for the MLB rotation, but now there is no room. The Cubs have Yu Darvish, Jonathan Lester, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana on the staff, with Mike Montgomery and Tyler Chatwood offering depth.
Due to the injury last season, the Cubs will also keep a close eye on Alzolay's innings throughout the summer. He only logged 39 2/3 innings prior to his health setback, so a full season of starting is not in his future for 2019.
"He's worked exceptionally hard," Cubs senior vice president of player development and amateur scouting Jason McLeod said last weekend. "The kid's phenomenal. He feels great. He looks great. But, yeah, it's probably going to be -- I can't put the innings out there now -- but it won't be a full 160-inning year."
The alternative would be to have Alzolay begin his season as a starting pitcher, with an eye on potentially coming to the Majors as a reliever. McLeod emphasized that given the structure of the MLB roster at the moment, the bullpen is the most probable route for pitching prospects to earn big league time this year. Obviously, injuries or setbacks would alter that landscape.
Do you think Albert Almora Jr. should get the most playing time in center? I think he should play all the time. I don't think he should be losing time to Ian Happ, who struck out 36 percent of the time last year and isn't nearly as good in center field. How can Almora get better against righties if he's on the pine?
-- John L., Colorado Springs, Colo.
First off, I'm thrilled to be taking a question from Colorado Springs. I graduated from Rampart High School, where I set the baseball team's all-time single-season record for getting hit by pitch. On-base percentage! I was hit nine times in 20 games officially, but there's an asterisk. There was a 10th, but an umpire ruled that I didn't try to move out of the way. I was robbed.
As for your question, I do think Almora should get the bulk of the innings in center, just as he did last year. His defense is too valuable, and if he can even be league average offensively, that's a great combination. That said, if Almora looks lost like he did in the second half last year (47 wRC+ after the break), then it makes sense to try to maximize the run production. Happ hit righties to the tune of an .816 OPS and 118 wRC+. Finding strategic days to get Happ in there is not the worst idea, as long as he is not costing runs defensively.
So I'd expect Almora to open the year as the regular in center, but with the possibility of his playing time shifting some as manager Joe Maddon and the team's evaluators get a gauge on how the hitters are performing. Often, you'll hear teams cite the 40-game mark or so as a period for making some adjustments along those lines.
Because of schedule quirks and weather issues in 2018, the Cubs in essence played the final quarter of their season without a true off-day. I say that this was a major contributing factor to the second-half problems. Yet, despite this issue having been discussed quite regularly in the midst of that long stretch, I haven't noticed this issue being discussed much this offseason. Have the Cubs concluded that it was a non-issue?
-- Pete V., Xenia, Ohio
You're right, Pete. The Cubs played 42 games in 43 days, if you include Game 163 and the National League Wild Card Game. I wouldn't describe it as a non-issue, but consider the optics of that being overly cited in interviews this offseason. That can come across as making an excuse, and the theme of this winter's message has been taking accountability and preaching a sense of urgency. Complaining about a rough stretch on the schedule doesn't seem to fit in either category.
This is not to say it hasn't been brought up at all. In fact, Benjamin Zobrist mentioned it when talking about the offense during Cubs Convention:
"You turn over every stone. You're thinking about, well, 'Why?' It's not just that it did happen. No, you've got to figure out why, and then you've got to make an adjustment and do something different. It's not like we weren't trying to change things at the end of the last year to get the offense going as well. Granted, we were all exhausted, and there [were] some schedule constraints. But even regardless of that, we felt like we should've hit better than we did. So yeah, some changes were made, and some structural changes are being made as well."
Is there any chance of seeing Dakota Mekkes make an appearance in relief for the Cubs this season? Is he ready?
-- John G., Ionia, Mich.
Mekkes is an interesting pitcher. The 6-foot-7 Michigan State (Go Green!) product has posted silly numbers since being taken in the 10th round of the 2016 MLB Draft by the Cubs. The big righty had a 1.17 ERA in 53 2/3 innings in '18 between Double-A and Triple-A, and he has a 1.16 ERA with 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings in 94 career games. Mekkes relies more on a unique arm angle than overpowering velocity, but it has worked at every level so far.
Yes, Mekkes is very much on the MLB radar this season as a depth option for the bullpen.
I realize we're in an age of specialization, but I had to raise an eyebrow at the hiring of a "quality assurance" coach. What is the job description for that position?
-- Steve O., Fountain Inn, S.C.
Indeed, the Cubs hired Chris Denorfia to be their new quality assurance coach, which is actually becoming a more common job around the Major Leagues. The job description can vary slightly from team to team, but think of it as a bridge between the players, coaches and front office. An amphibious vehicle of sorts for handling information, instruction and feedback. We'll see how Denorfia's specific role evolves as Spring Training progresses. He can also offer another set of eyes and another voice for the hitters.
The Cubs traded a player to be named to the Yankees for Ronald Torreyes and then non-tendered Torreyes. Do the Cubs still owe the Yankees that player to be named?
-- Terence L., Sun City Center, Fla.
No, that November transaction was actually for a player to be named later or cash. There was a cash transaction, which enabled the Cubs to have a negotiating window with Torreyes prior to the non-tender deadline. They did not agree to a deal, Torreyes was non-tendered and that was the end of that. Torreyes signed a one-year, $800,000 deal with the Twins after that episode.