The long road back for Adbert Alzolay could soon be coming to an end.
Alzolay made his second rehab appearance with Triple-A Iowa on Thursday, starting on the bump but only lasting 1 2/3 inning as he allowed four earned runs. That came after multi-inning rehab starts over the past week and a half, beginning with a three-inning outing with the Cubs’ Arizona Complex League affiliate on Aug. 22 before moving up for his first start with Iowa on Saturday.
The 8.10 ERA he owns after Thursday’s short start doesn’t look great, but the most important thing remains that he’s pitching in games with more than a month remaining in the Cubs’ season. He’s been out since the beginning of spring training with a right shoulder/lat strain, one similar to a lat strain that kept him on the minor league IL for nearly four months in 2018.
Alzolay said at the start of spring camp that he’d suffered the injury while throwing a bullpen about three-and-a-half weeks prior. A sixth-plus-month rehab process didn’t appear to be in the cards initially, but because it was the type of injury he’d sustained four years ago, a long-term recovery eventually became the scenario.
“It was similar to what he had dealt with prior, and we kind of knew what the timeline would be the first time,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy told CHGO. “Anytime you kind of re-injure or re-aggravate something, you know there’s potential of it being a longer break, but with all the MRIs and all the things that they did, they wanted to make sure it healed the right way and gave it as much time as possible.”
There isn’t a clear timeline for him to return to big-league action, nor is there certainty that he’ll pitch for the Cubs at all this season. Hottovy noted that there’s no inclination by the organization to rush Alzolay back to the majors just to say he got there this year.
“We want to make sure he can handle the environment in Triple-A of pitching and the higher-intensity game and handle the ability to recover,” he said. “We don’t want to rush him up here just to say, ‘Oh, he got to the big leagues. He’s fine.’ He could pitch the rest of the year in Triple-A and still be fine in my mind.”
However, the fact that he’s back to pitching multiple innings in minor leagues games might be a sign of what’s to come if he does don a Cubs uniform in 2022.
At this time last year (366 days ago, to be exact), Alzolay made his first appearance as a reliever in 2021. Long viewed as a piece of the rotation, Alzolay had just spent nearly three weeks on the IL with a left hamstring strain. That, along with the fact that he was nearing the most innings he’d pitched in a single season at any level, compelled the Cubs to move him to the bullpen.
He found plenty of success in that role. Who could forget his first relief outing on Sept. 1, 2021, in Minnesota, when he earned a four-out save as he and Justin Steele combined to hold the Twins to just two hits over nine scoreless frames?
Though he’s so far exclusively started games in his rehab assignment, if everything goes well at the Triple-A level, a bullpen role is likely for Alzolay if he finishes out the season with the Cubs.
“I think so, or like a piggyback-type role,” Hottovy said of Alzolay being brought back up as a reliever. “That way we can keep his pitch count up but also not expect him to fill 5-6 innings coming back. I think we saw what he could do out of the bullpen last year. It doesn’t mean we don’t see him as a potential starter, but it’s just a way to control what we want to control and keep him at a good pitch count. I probably see him in that kind of role.”
Alzolay coming back in a relief role this season is likely the ideal scenario for the Cubs. They’ve already got a relatively full rotation as it is:
- Marcus Stroman is healthy and pitching well
- Drew Smyly just pitched to a 0.90 ERA in five August starts
- Justin Steele’s missed start in Toronto (due to both being put on the restricted list because of his vaccination status and low back tightness he experienced in Milwaukee) is expected to be the only start he doesn’t make
- Keegan Thompson is eligible to come off the 15-day IL on Sunday, and even if isn’t activated that day, he’s expected to pitch again this season
- Wade Miley will be back into the rotation if he does return this year
- Adrian Sampson has been in the rotation for over two months and Javier Assad has impressed in his first two big-league starts, and both could certainly remain starters (or at the very least get spot starts) through the end of the season
Forcing Alzolay back into the rotation when there are other options isn’t the right course of action. He can always compete for a rotation spot after a full offseason when spring training 2023 rolls around. He’ll have plenty of competition, yes, but figuring that out doesn’t need to happen in the last month of 2022.
All that should matter as far as Alzolay goes is getting him into games, controlling his innings and pitch count, making sure he finishes the season healthy and letting him return to the rotation (if that’s indeed what’s in store for him in the future) when he’s ready.
“We knew getting him back at some point this year would be great. We also didn’t want to rush this,” Hottovy said. “We know how important he is, obviously, for what we’re going to do moving forward. We knew it was gonna be a longer process, but hopefully, we addressed the things that we needed to to get it to where it doesn’t have another issue.”
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