How Long Should Adbert Alzolay's Starter Leash Be? Do They Have to Consider the Bullpen Soon?

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How Long Should Adbert Alzolay’s Starter Leash Be? Do They Have to Consider the Bullpen Soon?

Chicago Cubs

This week, as Brett mentioned in his press conference recap, Cubs GM Jed Hoyer announced a two-week delay for pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay. It’s been called a side injury, the result of falling in a recent bullpen session. The Cubs are being extremely cautious, likely because Alzolay’s 2018 season was cut short due to a, yes, different side-ish injury (lat strain, to be precise).

Surely, this news will have the ‘Cubs Can’t Develop Pitching’ crew take a victory lap, while us others wring our hands quietly in the corner (“it’s just two weeks, it’s just two weeks”). And, hey: Alzolay’s return should put him on the same preparation schedule as his minor league peers. But it’s undeniable that we’ve now seen the injuries start to pile up: ankle last Spring Training, which led to talk about rebuilding his arm strength, the lat injury last June, and now his side. The good news is the injuries seem coincidental, but the loss of development time can’t be entirely overlooked.

Since August 20, 2017, Alzolay has thrown just 50.1 innings – 7 relief appearances in the Arizona Fall League and 8 Triple-A starts. He has only 72.1 innings above A-ball, and will turn 24 on March 1. This is a guy that’s been in the organization longer than all but six players on the 40-man roster (can you name them?). Because his breakout came in 2017, during which he added strength and velocity, the sample size from which to project his future is super small.

Undeniably, Alzolay’s stuff is among the best in the system. His fastball sits in the mid 90s, perhaps touching as high as 99 in the past, with nearly elite spin rate according to FanGraphs. He has great feel for his curveball, which is a capable out pitch. And I thought his changeup looked the best it had in Iowa last year before the injury. Together, it’s a starter-caliber 3-pitch mix.

Yet, Alzolay’s injuries and slight build do make you wonder if he’ll eventually end up in the bullpen.

In Iowa his numbers got worse each time through the order, and were disastrously bad the third time through the order, resulting in an OPS well north of 1.000. His stuff holds up on video pretty well over the course of a start, but his fastball command slips a little bit. This led to some very hard-hit balls in the 5th inning routinely last year, and short outings.  Alzolay is an extremely hard worker whose velocity is a result of his weight room work, but perhaps his frame can only support so much?

The common line in player development is that you don’t move someone into the bullpen until you have to. And I don’t think we can say we’ve hit that yet with Alzolay. Heck, in four of his eight starts last year, he was pitching no-hitters after four innings! But determining that precise point is going to be tricky. When he lost development time in 2018, Alzolay also lost an option season. He enters 2019 with two left, so by 2021 he’ll need to be prepared for full-time Major League contribution.*

As a contending team, the Cubs also must balance their own needs equal to, or perhaps above, a specific player’s ideal development. There are three ways to extract value out of Alzolay: as a starter, a reliever, or a trade piece. It’s early, but the Cubs currently project to have at least one rotation opening in 2020, and probably multiple open slots in the bullpen. Surely in trade talks he’s far more marketable as a starting pitching prospect.

It would seem to me, then, that Alzolay’s starter leash should extend at least as far as this season’s trade deadline. If he’s still in the organization, his Triple-A sample size should be enough for the Cubs to feel OK projecting him as the 5th or 6th starter for 2020, or determine if their and his needs are a better fit in the bullpen. Any injuries between this current one and that deadline will only further muddy this complicated decision.

If it’s not looking like he can remain a starter at that point, it might be time to start the bullpen transition. [Brett: Of course, he might also see time in the big league bullpen in any case, if there’s a need, and if the Cubs want to expose him to the big leagues while simultaneously limiting his innings this year. That is to say, just because he sees time in the *big league* bullpen this year does not necessarily mean his days as a starter are over.]

Get healthy, stay healthy and shove, Adbert.

*[Worth nothing the Cubs face similar decisions this year with Alec Mills and Duane Underwood, both of whom are entering their last option season. I find the decision easier in this case (I’m pro relief for both), but it illustrates that contending and developing are two responsibilities that rarely run in parallel.]

Author: Bryan Smith

Bryan Smith is a Minor League Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @cubprospects.