Adbert Alzolay wasn’t a high-profile prospect at the start of his professional career. The right-hander signed out of Venezuela in 2013 when he was 17 years old, earning a bonus of just $10K. He starting climbing the minor league ladder without getting much attention from prospect evaluators.
That changed in 2017, when he tossed 114 1/3 innings between High-A and Double-A. He posted a 2.99 earned run average that year, striking out 23.3% of opponents against a walk rate of just 7.3%. Suddenly, he was the club’s #2 prospect at both FanGraphs and Baseball America going into 2018. He was selected to the club’s 40-man roster in November of 2017 to prevent him from being selected in the Rule 5 draft.
But his ascent was about to hit some snags. In 2018, a lat strain forced him to be shut down in June. He was only able to make eight Double-A starts that year, tossing 39 2/3 innings. The next year, he missed some time due to biceps inflammation and also started to be bounced between the majors and minors. He was recalled three times that year, tossing 12 1/3 big league innings with a 7.30 ERA. In 2020, the minor leagues were cancelled by the pandemic, though Alzolay posted a solid 2.95 ERA in 21 1/3 innings in the majors.
After a few seasons interrupted by injury, roster shuffling and the pandemic, Alzolay finally got some clear runway to establish himself in 2021. Injuries were still a factor, as he made trips to the IL due to a right middle finger blister and left hamstring strain, but he was able to make 21 starts in the big leagues. Unfortunately, he wasn’t especially impressive in those, with a 5.16 ERA. His 24.1% strikeout rate, 7.2% walk rate and 44.9% ground ball rate were all fairly solid, but his ERA was inflated by the 24 home runs he allowed.
Going into 2022, Alzolay seemed likely to get another shot at the rotation. The Cubs were still in rebuild mode and figured to give young pitchers a chance to earn rotation spots. If Alzolay could limit the homers, the overall results would have been strong, as evidenced by his 4.02 SIERA in 2021. But he was diagnosed with a shoulder strain in March and was placed on the 60-day injured list before the season even began.
He didn’t start a rehab assignment until August and wouldn’t make his 2022 season debut until September 17. He pitched in relief down the stretch, making six appearances with a 3.38 ERA. He spoke to Patrick Mooney of The Athletic about his new role in October, expressing an openness to slot in anywhere that he could. “If my role is best out of the bullpen, being a long guy, being a guy that can throw in the eighth or close a game or whatever, I feel like I have the weapons to do that. It’s more versatility for the team and for the manager. You won’t have me every five days there, but you can have me every two or three days. I can go and throw three or four innings, or I can go and throw one inning late in the game.”
He’s been kept exclusively in relief this year and it has been a revelation. In 53 2/3 innings over 47 appearances, he has a 2.52 ERA. He’s striking out 28% of batters faced against a miniscule walk rate of 3.9%, while also keeping the ball on the ground at a 44.1% clip. His rate of fly balls turning into home runs has normalized at 8.2%, fairly close to league average. His 24.2% strikeout-to-walk ratio has him tied for 11th in the majors among pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched this year. Among those equal to him or better in the K/BB% department, only five of them have a higher ground ball rate. He’s done all that while taking over the closer’s role, having racked up 16 saves and six holds on the year overall.
Last month, MLBTR’s Steve Adams wrote about the breakout Alzolay’s teammate Mark Leiter Jr., noting that the Cubs have avoided significant spending on their bullpen in recent years. That’s a risky strategy but one that is paying off for them right now. Their team leader in holds, Leiter, was signed on a minor league deal and they now appear to have found their closer internally. Alzolay came into this season with his service time clock at two years and 50 days. He’s crossed the three-year mark here in 2023, meaning he will qualify for arbitration this winter, with the club able to retain him all the way through the 2026 campaign.
It’s possible that he or the club might still have dreams of a returning to starting in the future, but his success this year might tempt everyone involved to keep him where he’s thriving, especially in light of his past injuries. Regardless of where things end up in the future, it’s been a remarkable journey as Alzolay has gone from an unheralded minor leaguer signed for a modest $10K bonus to now being one of the best relievers in the majors this year.