(UPDATE: The Cubs later clarified that Alzolay COULD still have an option year remaining, but the decision has not yet been finalized. The original post remains below – the title has been adjusted to reflect this update.)
Among the many rules issues with which the pandemic effed last year, it’s been an open question how last year would be counted for purposes of eligible players getting a fourth minor league option year. In short, players generally get three minor league option years once they’re placed on the 40-man roster (i.e., three years to be freely shuffled up and down from the minors to the majors), but in certain limited circumstances, a player may wind up with four option years. And it’s been unclear how the 2020 pandemic season would be treated for purposes of this fourth option rule.
It’s a really narrow band of folks for whom this would even matter, so it hasn’t been discussed too much in the broader MLB space. But for the Cubs, it’s potentially been a really important topic, as Arizona Phil over at The Cub Reporter has mentioned several times this offseason. That’s because Adbert Alzolay was heading into 2021 either out of options, or with an option year left. Pretty important!
Thankfully, Jordan Bastian has the scoop – Alzolay will enter 2021 with an additional option year remaining:
Worth noting for the Cubs' rotation situation: While Alec Mills is out of Minor League options, Adbert Alzolay has one option year remaining.
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) February 18, 2021
Let me be very clear: to the extent Alzolay is capable of throwing big league innings and is pitching well, he’s going to get those big league innings. If he’s the guy he flashed last year, he’ll absolutely get in his big league innings, and his option-ability may not come up as much as it would for another prospect in a normal year.
That said, the reality of the innings bump situation is that Alzolay might be able to cover only 100 to 120 innings this season in any case. It’s not impossible to imagine a situation where the Cubs want to maximize when and how those innings are used, combined with any additional developmental work (we don’t want to just assume Alzolay is a finished product because of some great but very limited innings last year). So this might matter.
And then there’s the other thing. The roster crowding thing. The thing that sucks, but is a reality every year. When Spring Training concludes, and the final 26-man roster is taking shape, the ability to option certain guys to the minor leagues *is* a factor in who makes the team on Opening Day, like it or lump it. When you have guys that you might have to lose for nothing if you don’t keep them on the 26-man, and other guys who can freely be sent to Iowa for a couple weeks while you sort things out … well, teams are generally going to opt to keep as much talent in the organization as possible. (And that’s especially true when, for example, the guy you’re optioning out might be able to cover only so many innings this year anyway.)
So, in sum: the Cubs are going to have substantially more flexibility with respect to Alzolay this year than they would have if he were out of options. In terms of the time he performs at the big league level, this really shouldn’t matter, because the Cubs want him to succeed in the big leagues. That’s where he belongs, it’s where his next big development steps will happen, and it’s where he can help the organization most. But if his innings are going to be limited, and if there is a roster crunch at times, and if there is at least some remaining developmental work at Iowa (he has only 105.0 total innings at AAA in his career), then he may see some time optioned out. And if everyone else who projects to be in the rotation is healthy at the end of Spring Training, it’s possible that option time might come right at the start of the season.