Heading into 2020, Chicago Cubs righty Adbert Alzolay was still a well-regarded prospect, but he was coming off a year in 2019 that saw him (1) injured intermittently again, (2) dominate at times at AAA, but also loses pitches, and (3) look mixed at best in a brief big league debut.
That is to say, if you didn’t have Alzolay anywhere close to a top 100 prospects lists after 2019, you’d be par. And if you’d allowed him to slip toward the 10-ish spot in the Cubs’ farm system, that would probably also be standard.
Then 2020 happened. A year in which Alzolay spent most of his time at the alternate site reshaping his curveball, finalizing a two-seamer, and adding a dominant slider. When he got time in the big leagues, he looked like a top prospect coming up for a taste of the big leagues. That’s just kinda the look he had, if you’ll forgive my non-specific description. Between a now wipeout slider, a great curveball, a sometimes great changeup, a mid-90s four-seamer with great life, and a suddenly fantastic two-seamer, it was like … oh, wow, this is a GUY. Not just a guy for the Cubs (he was their Rookie of the Year!), but a GUY who should be a top 100 prospect. Like we said earlier this offseason:
On the year, Alzolay finished with just 21.1 innings pitched for the Cubs, but he posted a 2.95 ERA and a nearly matching 3.05 FIP. The walk rate was far too high at 14.3%, but the strikeout rate for a starting pitcher was an absurd 33.3%. The contact quality was sufficiently solid, too, that his expected stats at Statcast were strong (3.52 expected ERA, .279 expected wOBA – both in the top quarter of baseball among pitchers who faced at least 50 plate appearances). You extrapolate his year out over 120 to 130 innings, and you’re talking about a 3.0-WAR pitcher. I’m not saying he would pull that off in a “normal” rookie season – I’m just saying that’s how good he was.
Alzolay, however, is not regarded as a top 100 prospect, and there are good reasons for it. For one thing, the view that we got of “new” Alzolay was so brief, and with no opportunity for other teams to actually scout and adjust to his changes, all we got to see was him making some guys look foolish. That wouldn’t necessarily have lasted if he’d been exposed a little longer – we can’t know. Moreover, Alzolay still has an extensive injury history, which concerns prospect pundits about his durability. Moreover, there have always been questions about Alzolay’s ability to maintain his velocity and stuff deeper into games.
That is all to say, while the guy we got to see *absolutely* looked like a top 100 prospect type (I think most services would agree), that doesn’t mean he yet *is* a top 100 prospect type, because all the questions that existed before 2020 are still pretty much there.
And, thanks to his experience between 2019 and 2020, we’ll never actually get to know whether he becomes a top 100 prospect, since he’s going to graduate off of prospect lists as soon as he steps on the mound in 2021.
None of that necessarily matters. When you get to talking about a big-league-adjacent guy, you care about how a guy actually develops and performs, not how he’s perceived on lists. It’s just, well, I like for guys to get some love. It’s fun. And when you put in the work like Alzolay does, it’s nice to see some positive attention.
To that end, one small nod of love that Alzolay is receiving this rankings season is from Baseball America, which ranked the top 40 righty pitching prospects heading into the 2021 season. Alzolay, the only Cubs prospect to make the list, shows up at number 36: “Alzolay added a two-seam fastball and slider to his repertoire in 2020, giving him five distinct pitches. His fastballs both range from 93-97 mph, with his riding four-seamer more effective than his fading two-seamer, and his mid-80s slider has become a dominant swing-and-miss pitch. He has both a vertical, late-breaking version of his slider and a sharp, horizontal one when he moves to more of a cutter grip. His changeup is an above-average pitch that runs away from lefties and his snapping, low-80s curveball is a solid offering that gets a lot of called strikes. Alzolay pounds the strike zone when he has a good pace, but his control and deception suffer when he rushes through his delivery.”
If you’re curious, 23 of the 40 righties are on BA’s top 100, so Alzolay isn’t really a “just-missed” guy. Again, that’s fine. What really matters is what he can show as a member of the Cubs’ rotation this year, and he’ll get his shot at 100-120-ish innings if he’s healthy. Given that the Cubs’ best pitching prospects are generally still a year or more away, Alzolay takes on outsized importance to the organization in the intervening years. He’s got mid-rotation upside, and here’s hoping it shows up as soon as 2021.