Does Alzolay’s emergence impact Cubs’ bullpen construction?

January 4th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jordan Bastian’s Cubs Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

CHICAGO -- Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy wants to be sure that Adbert Alzolay’s performance last season does not go underappreciated.

Alzolay shook off multiple seasons hindered by injuries and logged his most complete tour to date. The righty did so in his first full campaign as a reliever, setting a career high in appearances. Along the way, Alzolay’s steady performance and stellar statistics helped him earn high-leverage moments, leading to the closer’s job by July.

“He was able to do all that in one year, which is extremely impressive,” Hottovy said this week. “Most of the time, that's not how it works out, right? Accomplishing all these things in one season.”

Now, Alzolay has that experience to lean on as he prepares to serve as one of Chicago’s late-inning arms in 2024. The Cubs’ front office also factors that showing into how it goes about trying to add to a relief corps that collectively hit a wall in the final month last year.

Hottovy said his personal offseason wish list for the North Siders would be to add at least a couple of established relievers and at least one rotation piece.

An additional starter would make it easier to move at least one of the back-end rotation options (Drew Smyly, Javier Assad or Hayden Wesneski) to the bullpen. A couple of relief additions would help protect Alzolay and fellow late-inning arms Julian Merryweather and Mark Leiter Jr., who all faced heavy workloads last season. Addressing both areas would create a safety net for promoting younger arms still in development.

“That would kind of be my ideal scenario,” Hottovy said.

The relief market has generally been slower this offseason, leaving some intriguing options on the free-agent board. Names like Josh Hader, Jordan Hicks and Robert Stephenson are available, plus the likes of Hector Neris, Matt Moore and David Robertson, among others. That is not even dipping into possibilities on the trade front.

How does Hottovy think the Cubs should address the bullpen?

“Just being able to solidify the bullpen,” he said. “I don't think that means necessarily a top-end, back-end guy, but just some solid, usable pieces in the middle that can pitch valuable innings and maybe push some of the workload away from some of the guys we had to rely on so much last year.”

Hottovy was referring mostly to Alzolay (career-high 58 games after injuries limited him to 13 1/3 innings for the Cubs in ‘22), Merryweather (72 innings in ‘23 after logging 52 2/3 innings total across ‘20-22) and Leiter (career-high 69 games in ‘23). Alzolay and Leiter, in particular, encountered setbacks in September after helping save the bullpen in the middle months.

For his part, Alzolay turned in a 2.67 ERA with 67 strikeouts and 13 walks in 64 innings last year. The right-hander collected 22 saves and began punctuating his game-ending outs with a signature fist pump that fans loved. He earned trust and looked the part.

Could the emergence of Alzolay as the closer last year impact what type of arms the Cubs target for ‘24? Hottovy said having “interchangeable pieces” to help finish off wins would be the ideal situation.

“What Adbert was able to do,” Hottovy said, “definitely gives you a lot of confidence that he's got what it takes to compete at a high level in the back-end role. I don't know how much that influences the type of arm you go get. I always like to have more than one guy that you can rely on to close out big games and pitch in big moments.”