Maddon to take a 'fluid' approach to closer role

Alzolay 'completely healed' after inflammation, but Cubs cautious

February 16th, 2019

MESA, Ariz. -- Standing at his locker, Cubs reliever cracked a smile when asked for his thoughts on being the closer to start the season.

"Did he tell you I'm going to be the closer?" Strop said with a laugh, referring to manager Joe Maddon.

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No, Maddon has not explicitly named Strop the ninth-inning man for the period of time that (right elbow) is on the injured list. That said, Strop is the most logical option as the primary man for the job, especially given his extensive track record of consistency for Chicago. And, when Morrow was sidelined last season, it was Strop who earned the bulk of the save opportunities.

Rather than name Strop the closer, though, Maddon said he is planning on taking a more "fluid" approach to the end of games in April. If a situation in the eighth inning warrants using Strop, the manager does not want to be pigeonholed into using someone else. That means relievers such as , and could also be options for ninth-inning work.

Maddon will look at matchups, as well as availability, when plotting out the ninth inning each night.

"I think primarily the focus will be who's rested, who hasn't pitched a couple days in a row," Maddon said. "And work it that way until Brandon becomes available. And when he becomes available, it's still not going to be an everyday kind of thing. So, I will work off numbers, but I think with this particular group, a lot of it will have to do with who's most rested."

Strop, who had a 2.26 ERA in 60 games with 13 saves last year and has a 2.63 ERA with 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings over parts of six seasons with the Cubs, is on board with that kind of approach.

"If I'm the closer, that's fine. I'm going to take the challenge and pick my boy up," Strop said. "We've got a bunch of guys down there. I feel comfortable, because I'm not by myself down there. It's not like we've got a down bullpen. We had the best bullpen [ERA] in the National League. So, whatever we decide to do, we're willing to do it and ready to compete."

Alzolay on the mend

Cubs top pitching prospect alerted the team's training staff last week that he felt a twinge in his right side while throwing off a mound. While Alzolay will be an estimated two weeks behind the rest of pitchers in camp this spring, he said an MRI exam only showed inflammation, and that the discomfort was unrelated to the lat injury that kept him sidelined for most of last season.

"That's completely healed. There's nothing wrong with it," Alzolay said on Friday morning. "I was worried. I knew it wasn't the same thing as last year, but still I was worried about it coming back again and all that. But then, when I woke up the next day, I was feeling really, really good. They talked to me and they said they just want to take really, really good care."

General manager Jed Hoyer said the Cubs are taking "an abundance of caution" with the 23-year-old Alzolay, given that he was limited to eight starts for Triple-A Iowa last year due to the prior injury. This year, Alzolay -- ranked No. 2 by MLB Pipeline on the Cubs' Top 30 prospects list -- is ticketed for the Triple-A rotation again to start the year, but he could be on the MLB radar as a reliever at some point.

"I don't mind if I'm going to be a starter or I'm going to be a reliever this year," Alzolay said. "This year, the main goal is just to help the team in the big leagues. As a starter or as a reliever, it doesn't matter right now."

Worth noting

• With the rotation full at the moment, lefty is again preparing for a swing-man role. Montgomery will build up as a starter this spring, but then transition to a bullpen role if there are no setbacks with the starters. Then, he will head into the season as the next man up for the rotation.

"I'm going to really try to have fun with it, with the role," Montgomery said. "And embrace whatever it is that comes my way. It's challenging. There's different aspects you've got to really take care of, but I'm going to have fun with it."

• Brach agreed to a deal with the Cubs in late January, and the one-year, $4.35 million contract (with a club option for 2020) became official earlier this week. The reliever said it was stressful going through the free-agency process, especially with how slow the market has been to develop.

"It's just kind of weird that all offers are the same, they come around the same time," Brach said. "Everybody tells you there's an algorithm, but you figure teams have different ones. But, I don't know. It's definitely a weird process, and you can't figure it out. Luckily, the guys in the bullpen have been the ones that haven't been hurt as bad."