Cubs spring notebook: Opening Day roster becomes more clear, Arrieta’s impact on Alzolay and more
MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs Opening Day roster is coming into focus.
The team made its third cut of camp Friday, reducing the big-league roster to 38 in spring.
Pitchers James Norwood, Kyle Ryan and Justin Steele were optioned to Triple-A Iowa while pitcher Brailyn Marquez was optioned to Double-A Tennessee. Five non-roster players were assigned to minor league camp (pitcher Joe Biagini, catcher José Lobatón and outfielders Michael Hermosillo, Nick Martini and Ian Miller).
That leaves the Cubs with only three catchers in the big-league mix, which means P.J. Higgins is the likely choice for the backup on the Opening Day roster. Austin Romine was signed over the winter to fill that role but he hasn’t played since March 6 as he’s battled a knee sprain.
Higgins has been a part of the Cubs organization since 2015 but has really put himself on the map over the last year or so.
“I’m really proud of him,” Willson Contreras said. “He’s a hard worker; he’s a nice teammate. He’s always picking somebody’s brain. That’s a good sign because whenever you want to get better, you have to go to the guys and ask questions.”
Coming up through the Cubs system, Adbert Alzolay has spent most of his career playing alongside and living with Higgins and is ecstatic his friend is on the cusp of making the roster.
“Wow, we can sit for a whole day and talk about P.J. Higgins,” Alzolay said. “I’m pretty pumped for him. He’s having a really, really good spring training.”
Higgins repaid Alzolay’s compliment by lining an opposite-field single off his teammate in the Cubs’ intrasquad scrimmage Friday morning.
The roster cuts also make the bullpen picture a bit more clear.
Barring injury, the Opening Day relief corps will come from this group (listed alphabetically):
Alzolay, Shelby Miller and Alec Mills are also options if they don’t crack the opening rotation.
One big aspect still to be determined is if the Cubs will go with an eight- or nine-man bullpen to begin the year. Earlier this week, we discussed how all the off-days early in the season could affect Contreras is a positive way and that also may carry over to the rest of the roster.
With four off-days through April 19, the Cubs should be able to get by with only an eight-man bullpen and that would afford David Ross more options off the bench.
“We are back in the National League [without the DH] where we’re going to have to make those pinch-hit moves and I don’t want to be short-handed on that end,” Ross said.
Chafin is a lock to make the team but if the Cubs opt for another left-hander in the opening bullpen, Ross confirmed Brothers and Wieck are both in the mix for that spot.
The Cubs will also have to do some tinkering with regards to their 40-man roster before Opening Day. There is currently only one spot available and if Brothers, Miller or Eric Sogard (among others) make the initial roster, they’ll need to be added to the 40-man.
Optioning Ryan to Triple-A allows the veteran southpaw to work up to speed and build arm strength. He was in camp but was unable to get off a mound for the first few weeks due to COVID protocols and has only thrown a few bullpens to this point.
Ryan, 27, made 91 appearances over the last two seasons for the Cubs while serving as one of the most reliable left-handers out of the bullpen. The focus right now is trying to get him back to that point.
“In ’18, he had multiple-inning outings where you could really run through a lineup and his splits are pretty good,” Ross said. “It doesn’t matter right or left — he’s got value from both sides. We’re just trying to get him to a spot where he feels strong and can bounce back on back-to-back days on some outings.”
Arrieta’s impact on Alzolay
Prior to the Cubs’ Cactus League contest at Hohokam Stadium, the Cubs took part in a “B” game at Sloan Park against…the Cubs.
Alzolay and Kohl Stewart started for the two squads and Alzolay worked up to about 50 pitches. He struck out 5 batters, including 4 in one “inning” (the Cubs kept Alzolay’s squad on the field for 5 outs that frame).
The 26-year-old right-hander worked hard to add a slider during last year’s shutdown and that pitch has become a key part of his repertoire. Four of the strikeouts Friday came on that pitch after he felt a little too rushed mechanics-wise throwing his slider earlier in spring.
“I try to put it out of my mind that I don’t have to make my pitch nastier than it is already,” Alzolay said. “Whenever I try to make a pitch happen is when I start making mistakes around home plate. Whenever I let myself be fluid on the mound and driving to home plate like today, I’m in better rhythm so I can command and control my pitches a little more.”
Alzolay also feels in a great spot with his curveball after a chat with Jake Arrieta earlier in camp helped unlock a new grip.
“He showed me something with his breaking ball that I’ve been putting into practice,” Alzolay said. “My last two games, I’ve been able to throw my curveball for a strike whenever I want.”
That allows him to get deeper into counts without relying exclusively on his fastball and leaves the slider as a true “out” pitch.
“It helps me save my best weapon for the end,” he said.
Alzolay likely has two more spring training outings on tap before the regular season and he is aiming to build up to about 70 pitches next time out.
Cactus League action
Zach Davies threw 4-plus innings in the Cubs’ win over the A’s Friday afternoon at Hohokam Stadium.
He gave up his first run of spring (unearned) and also allowed a hit for the first time Friday when he surrendered 4 singles.
Like Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta before him, Davies received an opportunity to step into the batter’s box in game action and struck out in both trips to the plate. The second time, he came up with the bases loaded and only 1 out, so he deliberately maintained a patient approach.
“I played the percentages,” Davies said. “The chances of me rolling into a double play with the bases loaded are pretty high if I put the ball in play. I’d much rather have Ian [Happ] up there and it worked out perfect. We got that 2-out rally and it was nice to see what I was thinking play out in the game.”
Happ followed with a 2-out, 3-run double and then came around to score on Anthony Rizzo’s hit.
Willson Contreras also continued to prove he’s ready for the regular season with a line drive home run to right-center.
Willson loves hitting homers. pic.twitter.com/zwWV5N8Yna— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) March 19, 2021
Ross celebrated his 44th birthday Friday by joining the media Zoom with a homemade sash from his 14-year-old daughter.
“She woke up at 6 this morning before I left and I promised her I’d wear it,” a laughing Ross said. “She said, ‘you better wear it for your press conference.’ I take my job very seriously, but I also love my family, so this is what I’m rocking today.”