Spring Training Prospect Notes: De La Cruz and Alzolay

Oscar De La Cruz

One of the big prospect stories out of Major League spring training has been the return of Oscar De La Cruz. The big righty entered 2017 as one of the hottest prospects in the Cubs system and then looked strong out of the gate with Myrtle Beach featuring a fastball (91-95, T97) with good arm side run, a plus curve and an average change. A pectoral injury sidelined him in May and ended up lingering until late in the year.

He did return to the Pelicans in late August to make four abbreviated appearances. His fastball was down a couple of ticks but after the long layoff that was not a big concern. When the team held him out of Arizona Fall League after initially naming him to the roster, that was a bit concerning. Adbert Alzolay, who stole much of the prospect spotlight expected to shine on De La Cruz in Myrtle Beach during the season, replaced De La Cruz on the Mesa roster. Alzolay continued his breakout season by showing well in the AFL.

The Cubs added added De La Cruz to the 40-man roster in the offseason in order to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. The move also provided De La Cruz his first opportunity to perform in Major League camp this spring. Given his injury-plagued season, along with the fact that he had yet to pitch above the Advanced-A level of the Minors, I imagine many did not expect much from De La Cruz in March. But despite some reports from Fangraph's Eric Longenhagen that his velocity was still down in the 88-92 MPH range upon his viewing, Oscar De La Cruz has made a strong impression.

Oscar De La Cruz

Oscar De La Cruz

His secondaries have looked sharp. He has shown no fear of the higher level of competition, challenging hitters and forcing them into pitcher's counts. For those who have watched him in the Minors, that aggressive mentality should come as no surprise. De La Cruz always seems to be in attack mode and rarely wastes time on the mound.

Cubs Director of Player Deveopment Jaron Madison spoke highly of the big righty in a recent interview with Jim Callis of MLB.com. "De la Cruz is pitching really well," Madison said. "We've thrown him into the closer situation and he has embraced the pressure with the game on the line. He has a big league body and great makeup. We've just got to get him through a healthy year."

Embracing the mindset necessary to perform when the game is on the line is one that may prove useful in the years to come. Oscar De La Cruz may have the highest upside of any starter in the Cubs Minor League system, but he also has a history of nagging injuries, and the entire Cubs starting rotation is under team control for the next three seasons. The team also possesses a pair of experienced left handers, Drew Smyly and Mike Montgomery, to function as rotation depth. Combine those factors with the fact that many of the team's relievers have their contracts expire over the next two winters, and you can understand why the road to breaking in as a big leaguer for many of the Cubs young pitchers, even the eventual starters, is most likely to come via the bullpen first.

It is a belief that Madison shares, "It's going to be a year or two before you see some starters have an impact. We're going to have a big battle at South Bend and Myrtle Beach this year. We probably aren't going to have enough rotation spots for all the [impact] arms from the last two Drafts, but that's a great problem to have."

The group of relief prospects led by Dillon Maples, David Garner, Craig Brooks and Corey Black will face stiff competition in the coming years from De La Cruz, but also other upper level starters Adbert Alzolay, Thomas Hatch, Alec Mills, Jen-Ho Tseng, Duane Underwood Jr., Trevor Clifton, among others. And the battle figures to get no easier even once some of the rotation spots open up after the 2019 and 2020 seasons because by then that large contingent of arms down in South Bend and Myrtle Beach will be ready to challenge as well.

Adbert Alzolay

Adbert Alzolay

Adbert Alzolay

While De La Cruz has made some unexpected waves, the prospect many looked forward to seeing has been held out of action so far. Fans may have noticed that Adbert Alzolay has yet to appear in any Cactus League games this spring, despite also attending big league camp as a member of the 40-man roster. It is hardly time to panic, temporary shutdowns are not uncommon during spring training, especially with young pitchers. No injury has been reported and he has been seen participating in some on field drills.

Alzolay did set a career high for innings pitched in 2017 and then went on to play in the Arizona Fall League. It is possible he is suffering from dead arm or the team simply does not want to rush their prized prospect. Another possibility is the club has asked him to focus his efforts on improving his changeup and feel that side work is more beneficial right now in that development than it is for him to worry about retiring MLB hitters with the pitch. If we don't see ramp up his activity in either Cactus League games or Minor League camp over the next week, then we should start considering the possibility that Alzolay will remain behind in Extended Spring Training to begin the season.

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    Not really on subject here, but do other people see what is happening this year with free agency? Not only are the players taking less, but it seems the owners are taking a stand as to how much they are willing to offer, seems this would bode well for the cubs with all their players set to cash in at the same time.If the owners stay on this path you might see Harper at 30M per as a reference to what we have to pay Bryant, though this is just a rosy picture...

  • I wonder if those two guys really have a legit chance of ever starting for the Cubs. As you pointed out, the current rotation is signed for three years. And the Cubs seem to like to target older, proven pitchers. They seem like trade chips, although trade for what? The Cubs don’t have an obvious need.

  • In reply to Cubswin09:

    They do have a chance to start for the Cubs. I just don't see it happening in 2018 or 2019 unless injuries crop up. Assuming he comes back healthy as expected in August/September of this year, Smyly (and Monty) will fill out the rotation depth the next two years. Alec Mills would be my first choice as an emergency starter from Iowa until Smyly is ready.

    The Cubs have control over their rotation for three years, but that does not mean they will all remain. Injuries happen. A guy like Chatwood could be dealt. The team has option years on Q in 2019 and 2020. If he gets hurt or regresses they could choose to walk away or trade him. Same with Lester in 2021. Hendricks will be nearing UFA around that time as well and if he chooses not sign an extension, they could look at trading him as well.

    Alzolay will need to show improvement with his changeup this year. If he doesn't he would still be under consideration for the bullpen come September. If he does, then the Cubs could look to deal a starter next offseason (Chatwood most likely) with the idea of Alzolay and Smyly/Monty competing for the 5th starter job next spring.

    I think De La Cruz spends all of 2018 and at least the first half of 2019 in the Minors. He could then work his way into the bullpen mix late in 2019 with an eye toward a starting role in 2020 or 2021. This is all assuming he actually puts together a fully healthy 2018 and builds up his innings count. If he fails to do that this season they may need to move him to the pen full time regardless.

  • In reply to Cubswin09:

    I think the Cubs apparent targeting of older, proven pitchers has more to do with what has been available from the minors than any bias against prospects. They haven't had much to bring up, although Hendricks started for the Cubs as a rookie. Things may change as pitching prospects become MLB ready.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    Yeah. It will be tough for the BOR types like Mills, Tseng, etc. but if you don't think the Cubs will happily make room for Alzolay, De La Cruz, Hatch or any other that proves MOR capable than you are kidding yourself. They want it to happen. They need it to happen if they have any hope of keeping the position player core together a few years from now. They can't keep paying pitchers at the rate they have and still have enough to handle raises for all of the hitters.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    I think it is going to be interesting to watch. If one of the current starters gets hurt, I think it would be more likely that one or more of the pitchers in the minors would be traded for a pitcher ready right now, rather than a minor leaguer moving into the rotation. And I think it is likely that at some point between now and 2021 the Cubs will be willing to go over the luxury tax to keep the window open. As long as the current everyday core is in place, I see them emphasizing proven starting pitchers in their prime.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    It also gives these young pitchers more time to develop. Best case scenario is the get a few more AAA starts under their belt.

    What do you think about a 6 man rotation in the second half? I think they did that in 2016 when they acquired Monty. Maybe help save a little juice for the post season.

  • In reply to couch:

    I think we could see it at some point. Smyly could be ready in August/September so they may want to get him a little action too.
    I think they need to guard against tiring Monty out though. He was gassed in down the stretch in 2017. No life on his pitches in the playoffs. If he gets some starts in the 1st half filling in for someone and stays stretched out then I could see him getting some 2nd half starts too even if everyone is healthy. But if he spends the whole 1st half in the pen then I don't see them switching him to a a starter in the second half. They will either wait for Smyly or work one of Mills/Tseng/Alzolay/etc from Iowa into the mix.

  • Not a starter, but I saw Alberto Baldonado pitch the 9th for the Cubs yesterday. Big lefty reminds me of Sabathia, and his ST stats this year are fantastic, albeit only 5 innings worth... I'd like to see him put it together in AAA and get some relief work for the Cubs this year.

  • It makes a lot of sense that Alzolay would be given some extra rest this spring due to him pitching in the AZ fall league. Especially if the Cubs think he might be called up to help the team in the second half. Do you think he starts in AA or AAA to begin the season, assuming all is well with him?

    Dylan maples sure looked sharp last night. With a little bit of luck, the Cubs could have one heck of a bullpen.

  • In reply to couch:

    I would like to see him start in AA, with end of May target to move up to AAA. But I would be fine with him beginning in AAA as well.

    Maples did look good. If he can command his fastball as well as he did last night hitters won't touch him. he wasted a few fastballs, but he also hit a few corners as well. Great sign.

  • I wouldn't focus on becoming a MLB starter as the measure of success. With starter innings on a steady decline the need is going to be for shutdown pen guys. Nobody should complain if we get a few Andrew Miller's out of the current mix. At this point I assume the goal is to throw strikes and maintain at least two plus pitches (three needed to start). If there is an abundance of arms, I wonder if Madison would piggyback in low A and high A. Twice through the lineup and manage the innings for a natural healthy progression over prior year. If we can fill the pen internally and (bonus) get a starter or two, then the FA money can go to maintaining the core and the draft pendulum can swing back to position players that will be challenging when the core is in its thirties. First world problems.

  • How has Carl Edwards, Jr. looked this spring? Are they doing anything different with CJ this year? I just remember last postseason when he had absolutely no control and was unable to get off the slippery slope once things started to go downhill.

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    When I’m reading about these pitchers I keep reminding myself that a good pitcher is more successful with movement and change of speed and location than just velocity. We’ve seen 98mph FBs hit out of the park. I’m glad that De la Cruz has a plus curve as do I believe Little and Hatch do.
    I also thought that Baldonado looked very good last night.

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    My comment just got eaten.

  • Javy left today's game after doubling into the gap and pulling up lame at second base. He was grabbing his hamstring and called for the trainer. He's a tough guy, so hopefully he was just being cautious. Initial word is hamstring tightness.

    El MagNO!

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Javy says he was just being cautious and may take a day or two off but expects to play this weekend. No MRI scheduled. Good news.

  • Purely hypothetical. With Moustakas and Gonzalez going back to their teams on very friendly deals. What would the Cubs do if Boras offers them the same $5Mil/$15Mil option with $1Mil buyout that Moustakas got to return to KC? Say bye bye to Grimm, move Chatwood to the pen and make one other move?

  • In reply to TexasCubsFan:

    I think signing Arrieta means you win 100 games.

    But many think Chatwood could be as good as Arrieta.

  • In reply to TexasCubsFan:

    What kind of spin does Boras put on telling his client to turn down a $17.5M option and then signing for $5.5M guaranteed?

    Kris, Albert, Addison : Are you'all paying attention to your agent's performance this offseason?

  • In reply to TexasCubsFan:

    No way does Jake take a 1 year contract paying him 5.5 million. I thought I read Philly offered a 3 year contract with appropriate AAV to Jake. That is significantly better than the deal you are proposing.

  • My vote is to say good bye to Grimm regardless. AZ Phil had a piece awhile back that said they could get rid of Grimm before a certain date (I think season start) and pay almost nothing. His performance today was poor, walking the first two. Save the $2M and utilize one of the youngsters.

  • Grimm has the stuff, he just has never been able to get consistent control of his pitches. His curve is great at times.

  • Unfortunately there is a long list of former MLB pitchers who had the stuff but couldn't consistently throw strikes, I think Grimm has one last chance with Cubs.

  • At one point, there was talk of making Grimm a starter. Does he have to go through waivers in order start the transition at Iowa?

  • In reply to DropThePuck:

    He is not a starter. The Cubs never said that they wanted to make him a starter. IMO if he continues to struggle he will be released.

  • Alzolay not pitching, and De La Cruz at 88-92, those aren't good signs for supposedly the top two guys.

    Madison made reference to De la Cruz "closing". Yes, that's been some 9th innings in early camp games. But it makes me wonder how soon they'll maybe move him over to relief for good.

  • In reply to craigJ:

    It is still early in camp. Every pitcher gets ready at a different pace and setbacks/tired arms are common. No reason to panic as yet.

    Alzolay has gotten in a lot of innings the past few years. He doesn't really need to build up stamina too much at this point.

    De la Cruz is the guy that needs innings. His career high (75 IP) was set back in the DSL in 2014. He followed up with 73 in Eugene the next year, but has been limited to just 95 innings combined the past two seasons.

    I would like to see him get about 90-100 this year if he can stay healthy. But that also means that he does not need to be a starter all season to reach that threshold. They can work him in as a reliever for a while if need be. If he fails to hold up once again this season, then I would consider moving him to the pen full time in 2019 and see how his body reacts.

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