Cubs spring notebook: Alzolay’s development, injury updates and demonstrative coaching
PEORIA, Ariz. — Adbert Alzolay will be a meaningful part of the Cubs pitching staff in 2021, but will he be on the Opening Day roster?
The up-and-coming right-hander will start the Cubs’ game Thursday evening at Sloan Park, his first game action since March 13. He threw in a scrimmage against his teammates on March 19 but has only thrown 4 innings in Cactus League play this spring.
The Cubs are cognizant of managing Alzolay’s workload as he has not topped 100 innings in a season since 2017.
But just because Alzolay has not seen game action in a little while, he’s still been able to work on his development behind the scenes.
“The main thing is working on continuing to execute pitches, making sure that slider shape stays where it was at last year,” David Ross said. “I think that was a real turning point for him and his career and the pitch shape that he developed and worked on and really got outs. That was a real weapon.
“Just continue to monitor that and then going out there and competing. … He is a guy that is really gonna help us out and so balancing [innings management] with his development process with how the roster shakes out – all that stuff comes into play.”
With Alzolay reportedly having a fourth minor-league option this season, the Cubs can send him to the alternate site to begin the year to continue to manage his workload and fine-tune his skillset.
But if the Cubs think he’s one of the best pitchers on the roster and can help them win right now, will that trump development and the concern over innings limits?
Last season, the Cubs shuttled Alzolay back and forth between Chicago and the alternate site in South Bend. He still wound up pitching 21.1 innings for the big-league club over 6 appearances (4 starts).
“I remember sending him down last year and he was like, ‘what are you talking about?'” Ross said. “He believes in himself, which you want every player to believe in themselves. That’s a great thing.”
Ross reflected on a time early in his playing career where a pitcher refused to come out of a game.
“You don’t ever want [pitchers] handing you the ball as the manager,” Ross said. “The ones that want to give you the ball are the ones I don’t want out here anyways. I think that speaks to how these competitors’ minds work.
“They feel like they belong. He’s had success and has built on that and is growing. I’m glad he believes he belongs on the team. I believe he’s gonna be a really good major league pitcher.”
Cubs reliever Jonathan Holder has not thrown in a game since March 17 and he’s been dealing with tightness in his pectoral muscle.
“The trainer told me to get this in at some point during spring training — an upper body injury. Is that what they say in hockey?” Ross said, laughing.
Holder felt some tightness after his outing last week and the Cubs want to make sure he’s 100% before he appears in a game again.
Holder, 27, was a free agent signing over the winter and figures to play a role in the Cubs bullpen at some point in 2021, though the injury likely takes him out of consideration for the Opening Day roster.
Veteran catcher Austin Romine is still on the shelf, as well. He has been battling right knee inflammation for the last couple weeks and is “slowly” getting better, Ross said.
He’s doing some baseball activity and the Cubs training staff has a plan, but there is still some concern over rotating that knee on swings.
Romine won’t be ready for the start of the regular season and P.J. Higgins is in line to make his first-ever Opening Day roster as the Cubs’ backup catcher.
The next time a Cubs player is running into a close play at third base, pay attention to coach Willie Harris. He gets so into the action that he lies flat on the ground to indicate to his players to slide.
Harris is a newcomer to Ross’ staff this season and serves as the outfield coach in addition to the third base coach.
Nico Hoerner tripled Wednesday night and as the throw was coming into third, there was Harris on the ground.
“Talking about personality and fun, I value that in my coaching staff,” Ross said. “It’s part of the reason why he was a standout candidate this offseason. He brings a lot of energy and knowledge but he delivers it in such a fun, impactful way because that’s what kind of personality he is.
“He comes from the school he told me of Joey Cora third base coaching where he’s gonna get down on the ground where the player is, just mimicking his body. The first guy that hit a triple early in camp, when he hit the ground, it made me start laughing pretty good.
“That’s Willie in a nutshell. He’s got energy, he’s rooting the guys on, he still feels like he’s kind of a player out there. He feels like he’s interacting with those guys in that type of way. The outfield group has really taken to him really fast. He’s impacting those guys, their drill work, the way he goes about his business and communicates with those guys and I feel like they already trust him a lot in such a short period of time.”
Harris, 42, played in the majors as recently as 2012 and spent 12 years in the big leagues between the White Sox, Nationals, Mets, Reds, Braves, Orioles and Red Sox.
Second base competition
Wednesday served as a relatively important day for the Cubs’ second base competition as three of the main contenders were all in the lineup at the same time.
Eric Sogard hit leadoff and played third base while David Bote batted second and played second. Nico Hoerner also started at shortstop and hit sixth.
All three guys are competing with Ildemaro Vargas for the regular second base job throughout the season.
Sogard had a big day at the plate, reaching base 3 times on a pair of singles and a walk while driving in 2 runs. He also stole a base and helped steal the Cubs a run in the 4th inning with heads-up baserunning by scoring on a Mariners error.
Hoerner tripled for the second straight game and also added a single. Bote went hitless in his 4 at-bats.
The Cubs had a minor league player test positive for COVID-19 recently, the team announced Wednesday. But it has not impacted the big-league clubhouse as the Cubs have gone through contact tracing protocls.
“Everybody has been tested multiple times that was even in the vicinity on that side and everybody has come back clean,” Ross said.