If you caught any of the Cubs 2016 Draft this past weekend, you’ll know that the Cubs have been working hard to stock the farm system with pitchers – particularly ones with some upper level experience.
Indeed, 27 of their 38 picks were pitchers, and almost every single one of them was a college righty. (Here’s a more detailed breakdown of the draft and individual picks).
Then, over the weekend, the Cubs claimed 25-year-old pitcher R.J. Alvarez off of waivers from the Oakland A’s. And although the method of acquiring this relatively young, but experienced pitcher was entirely different, the purpose was the same: get more pitching into the system. There’s no guarantee that any of these pitchers, including Alvarez, will do anything to help the Cubs at the Major League Level, but some might. So let’s take a look at what he’s got.
As I said, the Cubs claimed Alvarez off of waivers from the Oakland Athletics on Sunday, June 12, before optioning him to Iowa later that day (although, it might be the Tennessee Smokies, there seems to be a bit of confusion*). It appears that the A’s were trying to sneak him through waivers, in order to outright him as he rehabbed from elbow surgery, but the Cubs were able to pounce, because of the space on their 40-man roster (which now stands at 39 by my count).
But speaking of that elbow injury, let’s talk about Alvarez’s past and pedigree. Alvarez was drafted by the Angels in the third round of the 2012 MLB Draft, before ultimately making his debut with the Padres in September of 2014. In the offseason before 2015, Alvarez was traded to the Oakland A’s, where he went on to post a 9.90 ERA (7.73 FIP) in 20.0 innings pitched out of the bullpen.
Just before the 2016 season, Alvarez underwent a minor elbow surgery to remove bone chips from his throwing elbow. He was eventually placed on the 60-day DL, as he rehabbed/returned from that injury. On Friday, June 3, Alvarez made his first rehab start with High-A Stockton. He pitched a couple innings there, before pitching a couple more in AAA … which brings us to yesterday, when he was claimed by the Cubs.
Although his short time in the majors has been anything but a success, there’s at least a little bit there in explanation. His MLB BABIP (.351) was higher than his MiLB average (.329) and the MLB strand rate (56.3%) was definitely unusually low (71.8% MiLB average). Still, he wasn’t quite able to get a lot of groundballs (25.4% in 2015) and was hurt badly when the ball was in the air (20.6% HR/FB ratio). He did carry a healthy strikeout rate in 2015 (23.0%), but the walks were far too high (13.0%). All of this, of course, comes in a small sample, and against the backdrop of impressive minor league numbers.
In the end, Alvarez a pitcher with some fly ball tendencies and control issues (a very dangerous combination), recovering from elbow surgery, but there has to be something the Cubs like and perhaps it’s about his stuff.
Alvarez is a three pitch pitcher, with a fastball that averages out between 93-96 MPH (but has touched 98 MPH), a slider that averages out as a 60 on the scouting scale (but flirts with a 65) and a changeup he uses less often, but can be an effective set-up. Kiley McDaniel provided a brief scouting report on Alvarez at FanGraphs and ultimately lands in the same space: his stuff is electric, but he’s very inconsistent.
If the Cubs can find a way to harness that potential, they may have secured a nice young, mid-to-late inning reliever for 2016 and, more likely, the future. But until then, he’ll head to the minors to work things out and continue rehabbing.
*The Chicago Cubs transaction page indicates that Alvarez is heading to Iowa. The Iowa Cubs roster page indicates that Alvarez is on the I-Cubs. The first Cubs tweet indicated Iowa, but the second corrected that, saying that Tennessee was the destination. We’ll update you if there’s further clarification, but it doesn’t really change much of anything else written above.