Arrieta on Alzolay: 'I can tell that he wants it'

Veteran, youngster developing close mentor/student partnership at Cubs camp

February 23rd, 2021

MESA, Ariz. -- After finished up a bullpen session last week, the veteran Cubs starter stayed around to watch complete his own mound workout. It was a chance for Arrieta to get a closer look at Alzolay and offer feedback.

Since Arrieta arrived at Chicago's camp, Alzolay has constantly been at his side. They have been spotted in conversation, showing each other grips on a baseball. There was one stretch last week in which Arrieta estimated that the young righty chatted with him for over an hour each day.

"From the get-go, I can tell that he wants it," Arrieta said during a Zoom discussion this past weekend. "There's no doubt in my mind. He's focused. He asks a lot of questions."

One of Arrieta's stated goals for this reunion with the Cubs has been to be willingly available as a resource for the team's younger arms. It is not a new development -- Kyle Hendricks credits Arrieta for his influence early in his own career -- but Alzolay has embraced having such a decorated veteran at his disposal.

Alzolay, who badly wants to be a part of the Opening Day rotation with Arrieta, has been paying close attention to the elder righty's daily routine. After Tuesday's workout in Arizona, Alzolay raved about the intensity with which Arrieta moves from station to station, making sure not to ease up in any phase of the day's duties.

"You see that mentality," Alzolay said. "I want to have that with me, because the guy's a Cy Young winner for a reason. It just doesn't come because you are lucky or something like that. To me, it's just trying to pick up the thought process that those guys have."

When Arrieta was on top of the baseball world -- winning the 2015 National League Cy Young Award and then a World Series in '16 -- Alzolay was working his way up Class A in the Cubs' farm system. And while arms like Arrieta, Hendricks, Jon Lester and others acquired via trade or free agency powered the MLB rotation, the narrative persisted that the North Siders could not develop their own impact pitchers.

Now 25 years old and with a chance to win a job in manager David Ross' starting staff, Alzolay wants to change that storyline. He wants to build off the flashes of promise he displayed briefly with the Cubs in 2019 and '20, and show that the organization did not miss when it came to his development.

"To me, it's just getting that experience and keep working on that goal," Alzolay said. "Because I know it's there. I know I can do it. It's just a matter of keep doing it the right way and keep working."

In six Major League games last year, Alzolay turned in a 2.95 ERA with 29 strikeouts and 13 walks in 21 1/3 innings. The righty really took a step forward in two late-September outings, which included a four-inning relief appearance and a five-inning start. He struck out 15, walked four and allowed two runs over nine total innings.

Within those final two outings, Alzolay showed off a new slider, which he honed in mound sessions, lab work and simulated games at the Cubs' alternate training site in South Bend, Ind. It gave him an additional breaking pitch to use as a wipeout option that played well with his two fastballs and changeup.

Alzolay had no hesitation when it came to taking those test trials in a controlled setting into Major League games with October seeding on the line.

"He trusted what he was trying to do," Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said recently. "And that's just the freedom you saw. I think you saw a guy who trusted in his stuff. He knew he could get hitters out at the elite level, and he had fun doing it. I just want him to continue that, continue to have fun."

Alzolay's ability to put that trust on display showed Ross a lot.

"It just says where he's at mentally," Ross said. "I think that's where the high expectations come from him, that you see. And from us. He's a guy that I think we're all excited about."

Even though Arrieta is just getting to know Alzolay, the veteran has already come away impressed with the young pitcher's approach to camp and his desire to learn through conversation.

"Adbert is going to be really, really good," Arrieta said. "His stuff is extremely impressive. We've been playing catch every day for the past [several] days. And we've been talking pitching pretty much non-stop since I've been here."

It is a scene that probably looks familiar to Hendricks, who has grown into the leader of the Cubs' rotation.

"He kind of took me under his wing when I first came up to the big leagues," Hendricks said. "He's a great guy to lean on. That's basically what I had when I came up. I learned so much from him. Just having his knowledge around and just his work ethic in general.

"When you see a guy that's been through it all and is still putting in the amount of work that he does, you just follow suit."