I've been out of action quite a bit the past few weeks and haven't been writing with the same frequency that I would prefer. Thankfully the hot stove has heated up this past week and Jared stepped in with a number of great articles covering all the recent action, so hopefully I haven't been missed to badly around here. While some of the bigger chips on the free agent and trade markets have begun to fall, the Cubs have made several minor moves since the season ended that figure to have an impact on the Iowa squad in 2018, but could also provide valuable depth for the big club. Four pitchers have been added to the 40-man roster from outside the organization (Dario Alvarez, Luke Farrell, Cory Mazzoni, Randy Rosario), and another left handed reliever Alberto Baldonado was inked to a Minor League deal yesterday. I've begun watching video of each new acquisition and want to begin sharing how each figure into the 2018 picture. Today, I'll start with left handed reliever Dario Alvarez.
Full Name: Dario Rafael Álvarez
Age: 28 (January 17, 1989)
Birthplace: Santiago, Dominican Republic
Ht: 6' 1" Wt: 170
MLB Debut: 09/03/2014
Minor League Option Years Remaing: 1
It was a long road to the majors for Dario Alvarez. He toiled for three seasons as a teenager in the Dominican Summer League despite terrific strikeout totals and overall effective numbers. The Phillies never brought him stateside before releasing him. He would spend three months back in 2010 trying out for Japanese teams before finally settling for a contract in a Venezuelan pro league. After one season there the Dominican Republic native pitched another two years in Panama. There were Major League teams sniffing around throughout those years, but according to Alvarez they all wanted him to return to the DSL. He wanted to prove his ability in America.
The perseverance and belief in himself paid off. It took him less than two seasons after signing with the Mets in 2013 to make his way from the short season New York-Penn League all the way to the Majors. Since his September debut with the Mets, Alvarez's path has been no less circuitous than before. He has bounced back and forth between the Majors and Minors. He has been waived. He has been traded. And now he has signed with the Cubs this offseason via free agency.
In 56 MLB appearances over the past four seasons Alvarez has amassed a 6-1 record to go along with a 5.06 ERA. The ERA may look ugly, but there have been stretches over the past two seasons where the lefty's powerful arm and wicked slider has proven effective at the highest level. Before struggling in the second half of 2016 after a trade to the Rangers, Alvarez had posted a 28-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 15 innings with the Braves. He followed that up with a 2-0 record and 2.76 ERA in 20 games while filling in with the Rangers last season.
You rarely find 29-year-old journeymen with upside, but that is indeed the case with Dario Alvarez. He struggles to repeat his motion as he partially turns his back to the hitter to add some deception. Alvarez then slings the ball across his body from a 3/4 arm slot. Not only does he vary the height of his leg kick, but he often fails to finish out over his front foot and falls off to the side. Alvarez also alters his time between offerings, often dragging the speed of the game down to a grinding halt. The overall inconsistency affects his command. If there is one area that I would like to see the Cubs address it is attempting to get Alvarez to approach every pitch the same way. Get him in a rhythm and standardize the timing of his delivery.
Because the stuff is there. He typically works 92-93 but is capable of dialing his fastball up to 94-95. It isn't a special offering though, despite the above average velocity from the left side. I do believe however that part of the issue with the pitch is the predictability in the location. Alvarez rarely works the upper part of the strike zone with intent, preferring to attack hitters at the knees and below on both sides of the plate. While this does serve his sweeping slider well, it adversely affects his fastball effectiveness in my eye. New Cubs Pitching Coach Jim Hickey has past success convincing pitchers to integrate working up in the zone with the fastball and I believe Alvarez is a prime candidate to incorporate this aspect to his repertoire as well.
If the Cubs can make any improvements to his rhythm or alter his pitch sequencing as I laid out Alvarez could provide a valuable boost to a pen that lacks left handed depth. Alvarez simply needs something to further compliment the effectiveness of his plus slider. It has enough depth and lateral movement to act not only as a chase pitch, but can get both looking and swinging strikes within the zone as well. He back and front doors the pitch effectively. A true plus pitch, Alvarez throws the slider approximately 60% of the time, and it has allowed him to punch out 11.4 batters per 9 innings over his 48.0 MLB innings. His 13.8 K/9 rate in 2016 was 8th among all MLB pitchers with at least 25.0 innings. That number dropped to 9.4 in 2017, but more concerning was the spike in his walk rate, which jumped from 2.4 BB/9 in 2016 to 7.7 in his 20 games with Texas last year. It was over twice his rate from AAA in 2017 though so it is possible it is simply small sample size noise and not an emerging trend. His velocity did drop a tick from its height in 2016 which could also explain the slight backslide in effectiveness.
While better against left handed hitters, Alvarez is capable against righties when the situation calls for a punch out. His slider works effectively against both. He loves to back foot the pitch to right handed hitters and his K and BB rates remain remarkably similar regardless of which batters box is occupied. The issue is he becomes more susceptible to hard hit balls against righties when they do make contact. They likely get a better look at his fastball and his general lack of command means that they can take advantage of a mistake with that pitch more frequently.
As of right now Alvarez appears lined up to be the third left handed option behind Mike Montgomery and Justin Wilson. He'll have competition from former Twins hurler Randy Rosario, but the real question becomes whether that third option will be carried on the roster in Chicago or if the club will choose to devote those spots to players they risk losing waivers. Certainly much will depend on whether the two pitchers can make improvements prior to the start of the season, but it is important to note that both possess Minor League options (Rosario (2) and Alvarez (1)), unlike some of their right handed competition (Justin Grimm, Eddie Butler) for the final spot(s) in the Chicago bullpen. It seems far more likely at this point that Alvarez begins the year in Iowa and rides the Des Moines shuttle frequently, much in the same way that Grimm and Dylan Floro did in 2017.
Montgomery and Brian Duensing remained healthy throughout last season so the Cubs previous left handed depth options, Zac Rosscup and Jack Leathersich, each barely received a sniff of the 25 man roster, but that luck doesn't figure to hold in 2018. At some point next season the club will need to receive help from the farm. Alvarez possesses the talent to not only fill in, but if he can take a step forward with his consistency, could mitigate the need to acquire a proven option should the team suffer a long term injury to either Wilson or Monty.