How Adbert Alzolay has influenced Cubs prospect Ben Brown

Over the past few years, Alzolay transitioned from being the young up-and-comer to a source of advice for the next wave of Cubs pitching.

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Right-hander Adbert Alzolay throws long toss on the agility field at Cubs spring training in Mesa, Arizona.

Right-hander Adbert Alzolay throws long toss on the agility field at Cubs spring training in Mesa, Arizona.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — Living in Arizona over the offseason has given Cubs right-hander Adbert Alzolay extra face time with the pitching prospects coming up behind him.

“He puts his head down and works so hard,” said right-handed prospect Ben Brown, whom the Cubs acquired at the trade deadline last year. “I’m kind of amazed. I’ve never seen him stop working. And he’s been huge with telling me about pitchability and stuff.”

It has been a few years since Alzolay was the one gushing over Yu Darvish’s tutelage in his first couple MLB seasons. But time has flown by, partly because of the injuries Alzolay has battled, partly because the COVID-19 pandemic shaved off games. Somewhere along the way, Alzolay transitioned from being the young up-and-comer to a source of advice for the next wave of Cubs pitching.

“Me and Justin Steele were having this conversation the other day about it,” Alzolay, 27, told the Sun-Times, “because we were like, ‘Bro, we feel so old here now.’ ”

Alzolay and Steele, whom Brown also thanked for being generous with his time all offseason, came up together in the Cubs’ system. They entered camp this year in established roles, Steele solidly in the rotation and Alzolay in the bullpen as a high-leverage, multi-inning reliever.

It was a role Alzolay stepped into at the end of last season, when he came back from a lat strain to post a 3.38 ERA in six games.

“I felt that was kind of a sign that would be my role this year,” Alzolay said. “So going into the offseason, I was preparing myself to do that instead of coming out to start every five days.”

The Cubs have made their spring-training complex a hub year-round, investing in a prospect camp over the winter, and of course, welcoming in other players who are in town. Alzolay was around all winter.

“Adbert’s gone through a lot here with injuries, [serving as a] starter and reliever,” manager David Ross said, “some ups and downs, some success and some areas he’s got to continue to improve. So, I think he has a lot of experience in that way. And he’s easy to talk to, he’s very friendly.”

This winter, Alzolay worked on refining his routine in a new role. He wanted to hone his changeup. He was workshopping a sweeper slider — a theme around Cubs camp this year. And he was more than happy to talk pitching with others around the complex.

“He’s telling me what he learned from Yu Darvish years ago,” said Brown, the Cubs’ No. 7 prospect, “and now he’s passing that knowledge on to me and the younger guys who are here. He’s been awesome. Adbert’s been a really great teammate and really great to get to know.”

Alzolay remembers how much the veterans helped him as a prospect. Any question he had he’d bring to Kyle Hendricks. And in big-league camp in 2018 and 2019, Alzolay made it his mission to observe the routines of pitchers who had been around longer than him. Talking with Darvish, known for throwing almost a dozen different pitches, changed the way Alzolay thinks about pitching.

“Darvish would tell me all the time, don’t get used to throwing with just one grip,” Alzolay said. “Because he’s like, ‘Every day it’s not gonna be working the same. So, if you’re playing catch, you’re feeling good with a ball in your hands, try to spin the ball, do this, do that.’ ”

Trying out different grips while playing catch has made Alzolay more comfortable manipulating the shape of each of his pitches on the mound.

So he has relayed that lesson to Brown and other prospects who have sought advice. He told them to get in early, pay attention to the details of Kyle Hendricks’ and Marcus Stroman’s routines. He encourages them to talk to the veterans on the pitching staff: “Don’t be afraid to go over to that guy and ask him. I don’t throw that pitch, but he does.”

“I believe that at some point this year or the next, we’re going to need all these guys,” Alzolay said. “They’re super talented.”

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