It’s not quite the same as the service-time specter that’s been haunting baseball’s labor conversations for the past several years, but the unresolved grievance regarding minor league options will have a much more immediate impact. Because MLB doesn’t consider 2020 as a full season, the league has ruled that options from last year don’t count or just that teams essentially get another option on eligible players.
For the sake of clarifying that topic before moving on, a player has three minor league options after he has been placed on the 40-man roster. That means a team can send him to the minors over the course of three seasons — not necessarily a set number of times — without having to place him on waivers.
In the case of Adbert Alzolay, the current ruling would grant the Cubs another option on him that would allow them more roster flexibility. The MLB Players Association has contested the ruling, so winning the grievance would mean Alzolay is out of options and would have to be placed on waivers in order to be sent down. Since the Cubs obviously aren’t going to expose him to that process, a union victory means Alzolay is breaking camp with the Cubs.
Not that he’s concerning himself with matters outside his control.
“In my mind, I’m going to make the roster,” Alzolay told the media. “That’s what I have on my mind.
‘‘I don’t really like all the [option] things on my mind. Those things are negative to me. I don’t try to put that in my mind. I’m just trying to control what I can do on the field.’’
This might be a moot point if the righty’s performance was in line with expectations, but he’s looked pretty rough so far this spring and might need a little more time to get his stuff dialed in. That could happen quickly, as we saw last year when Alzolay incorporated a two-seam and slider seemingly overnight at the Cubs’ alternate site in South Bend. With what is now a five-pitch repertoire, he’s got the makings of a legit starter if he can stay healthy.
Therein lies the other big wrinkle here when it comes to rostering a would-be starter who’s never thrown as many as 121 innings in a professional season (and that was in 2016). David Ross and Tommy Hottovy have been clear about taking a judicious approach with Alzolay, even going so far as to say that he’ll absolutely work in relief at times this season.
While that concept doesn’t knock him out of contention for a semi-regular spot in the rotation, you can see how it might be advantageous to be able to shuttle him to the alternate site in April. There’s also the matter of creating temporary roster spots in the event of doubleheaders or injuries that don’t require IL stints. For example, Alzolay could be optioned following a start to make room for someone else, then reactivated without actually reporting to or pitching for an affiliate.
In the end, this really has nothing to do with talent and everything to do with exploiting a procedural loophole. If Alzolay is out of options, he’ll break camp with the big club and will likely serve as a hybrid starter of sorts. Talent aside, he seems like a much better fit for that role than Alec Mills, who probably has a better grip on a true starting spot. If Alzolay has an option remaining, it’s entirely possible he will join the Cubs at a later date and will be shuffled around in order to limit his innings and keep a fresh pitcher on the roster.
And make no mistake, there will be scores of other players — pitchers in particular — impacted by the result of this grievance. It’s but one of many ripples we’ll see from the shortened 2020 season and how its rules and physical impact will carry forward through at least 2021. Then you’ve got the aforementioned labor strife looming over all of it.
For now, though, we’ll keep our focus on Alzolay and the Cubs pitching staff.