PT TOMORROW: NL Central — Alzolay makes his pitch

Chicago Cubs

Jon Lester (LHP, CHC) appeared to be turning back the clock to start the 2020 season, racking up a 1.06 ERA and 0.65 WHIP through three starts and 17 innings. It didn’t a take sabermetric genius to know that wasn’t going to last, however, as in that same span he posted a 4.8 Dom and 2.25 Cmd. Predictably, he has allowed 13 earned runs across his last two starts, spanning 9.2 frames. Alec Mills (RHP, CHC) suffered a similar fate, as he had allowed two earned runs in his first 13 innings this season, only to allow 10 earned runs in 9.2 innings since.

Those struggles combined with José Quintana (LHP, CHC) and Tyler Chatwood’s (RHP, CHC) absences, it’s little surprise to note that Cubs’ starters have combined to post a 6.63 ERA over the last seven days, during which the Cubs have gone 3-5.  Last week in this space, we made the case for a potentially premature promotion of Brailyn Marquez (LHP, CHC). However, a more realistic reinforcement is former top prospect Adbert Alzolay (RHP,CHC), who made quite a statement in his audition in a starting role last week  (5.0 IP, 6 K, 2 H, 1 BB).

While Alzolay was returned to the Cubs training site immediately after his start, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him back in the rotation before season’s end. While potentially hard to remember due to an uninspiring major league debut, Alzolay was tagged as a 9D prospect in the 2019 organizational report with the upside to reach the status of a number two starter. While both Chatwood and Quintana appear poised to return to the mound soon, manager David Ross has already stated that Quintana could return from the injured list as a reliever. While Lester is unlikely to be displaced from the rotation due to his status as a veteran with the club, Mills holds no such deference. Accounting for injuries and poor performance replacement, Alzolay could get his second shot at a major role with the big-league club sooner rather than later.


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Pittsburgh Pirates

Chad Kuhl (RHP, PIT) has been a bright spot among the Pirates’ pitching staff in 2020. Returning from Tommy John surgery, Kuhl began the season making piggyback starts in tandem with Steven Brault (LHP, PIT). However, as injuries began to pile up, specifically to Joe Musgrove (RHP, PIT) and Mitch Keller (RHP, PIT), Kuhl has taken over a rotation spot of his own. The results have been strong across three starts, as he’s racked up a 3.21 ERA, a 9.0 Dom, and a 3.5 Cmd across 14 innings. While he’s yet to work deep into his outings, Kuhl is stating his case to maintain a role in the Pirates’ rotation in 2021.

Most notable about his performance has been his change in pitch mix, a microcosm of the Pirates’ pitching staff as a whole. Kuhl has lessened his fastball usage, utilizing a sinker as his primary pitch. While that’s not a usual recipe for strikeouts, Kuhl has never had a plus fastball and has utilized the sinker to lessen his dependence on a subpar pitch. Instead, he’s utilized his slider, change-up, and curveball more – all of which have been measured as plus pitches – which has still allowed him to record a career-best 11.2% SwK.     

Jameson Taillon (RHP, PIT), Musgrove and Keller all figure to be locked into rotation roles to begin the 2021 season, assuming health. However, after that, questions will be abundant. Chris Archer (RHP, PIT) is unlikely to remain with the team, unless he re-signs on a cheap deal after his $11 million team option is (almost) assuredly declined. And the fifth spot should be up for grabs. Given that scenario, Kuhl can utilize the remainder of the 2020 season to showcase himself for a long-term position with the club.

 

Cincinnati Reds

Matt Davidson (DH, CIN) played hero on Friday night, slugging a pinch-hit grand slam to power the Reds to a key victory over the Cardinals. That was an example of the offensive jolt Davidson has provided to the Reds’ offense this season (199 PX, 186 xPX, 117 BPV), albeit in a very limited sample size (26 PA). Davidson has accrued the majority of his plate appearances against left-handed pitching, but has shown the ability to hit for power in bunches regardless of pitcher handedness throughout his career (career 141 PX vs. LHP, 142 vs. RHP).

Davidson could see his role increase in the near future. Nick Senzel’s (OF, CIN) health status remains unclear, however, his absence has forced the Reds to shuffle around their outfield alignment. Most notably, the team has shifted Jesse Winker (OF, CIN) from designated hitter role to left field in three of the last four games. Since, the team has utilized recently DFA’d Josh VanMeter (OF, CIN) to take over as the designated hitter. On Sunday, 28-year-old Mark Payton (OF, CIN) entered the lineup, earning his major-league debut. As a left-handed hitter, he makes a natural pair with Davidson, though Payton stalled out in the upper levels of the minor leagues, call into question his ability to maintain meaningful success in the majors.

As a result, Davidson is a power bat that could get more plate appearances in short order. Not only does he have a chance to supplant Payton as the full-time designated hitter, but he has the opportunity for expanded playing time even if Senzel returns in the near future. Despite some preseason optimism surrounding Joey Votto (1B, CIN), he has not shown the ability to bounce back at an advanced age. In particular, he has struggled against left-handed pitching (.158/.304/.316, 76 PX in 2020), which could allow Davidson the chance for additional part-time at-bats.

 

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers have been one of the least productive teams from the leadoff spot, accruing just a 56 wRC+ from one of the most important spots in the lineup. Lorenzo Cain’s (OF, MIL) decision to opt out left a major void in the role, as have Eric Sogard’s (INF, MIL) struggles (76 HctX, 36 XPX, 0 BPV ). The team has given Ryan Braun (1B/OF, MIL) a chance in the leadoff slot against left-handed hitters of late, a role he’s done well with in a small sample (4-for-12 with a home run, two runs scored, and four RBI).

As could be expected, the supbar performance has trickled down to the team’s star players. In 2019, with Cain entrenched in the leadoff spot, Christian Yelich (OF, MIL) came to bat with runners in scoring position every 4.39 PA, and runners on base every 2.43 PA. Similarly, Keston Hiura (2B, MIL) came to bat with runners in scoring position every 4.09 plate appearances and men on base every 2.20 plate appearances. In contrast, Yelich has come to bat with runners in scoring position only every 5.61 plate appearances and with runners on base only every 2.88 plate appearances in 2020; Hiura with runners in scoring position every 4.09 PA and runners on base every 2.86 PA.

While neither Hiura nor Yelich have met their lofty expectations this season, giving them the opportunity to get hot with runners on base would clearly benefit the team. One name to keep in mind for potential leadoff duties is Luis Urías (2B/SS, MIL). The 23-year-old has had made a tremendous amount of contact since being activated from the injured list (85 ct%, 80 HctX ). While he has yet to turn that into power (52 xPX), Urias has shown a discerning eye (0.60) and his profile would fit well as a able setter for the team’s stars.  

 

St. Louis Cardinals

Harrison Bader (OF, STL) entered the season with secured playing time thanks to his strong defense in center field and a lack of other viable candidates to man center field. However, that has changed due to the promotion of Dylan Carlson (OF, STL), who has started four games in center field since being called up, leaving Bader with eight starts in the team’s past 12 games.

Bader may have bought himself more playing time with his performance in the team’s weekend series against Reds, slugging two home runs and collecting four hits. Bader has also continued to hold up his end of the deal defensively, ranking in the 76th percentile in outs above average, 74th percentile in outfielder jump, and 100th percentile in sprint speed.If Bader is  able to parlay his strong performance this weekend into a jump in production, the pressure for playing time will shift to Dexter Fowler (OF, STL).  

Fowler has also been abysmal at the plate (70 ct%, .215 xBA, 87 HctX, -18 BPV), and has found himself out of the lineup on four occasions since Carlson’s callup. Brad Miller (3B, STL) has claimed everyday at-bats, making Matt Carpenter (3B, STL) the primary designated hitter, by quietly emerging as one of the team’s better hitters (115 BPV). That makes it harder for Fowler, or any one of the team’s excess outfielders, to slot in as the designated hitter, leaving both Bader and Fowler at higher risk of losing at-bats as the season wears on.


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