Adbert Alzolay nodded as Jake Arrieta extended the ball in front of him, his middle finger hugging the seam.
The two were talking specific pitch mechanics while playing catch this week, something that’s become a common sight in Cubs spring training. The veteran and the rookie have talked at least an hour every day for the past week, according to Arrieta.
“He's a guy who, from the get-go, I can tell that he wants it,” Arrieta said of Alzolay. “There's no doubt in my mind. He’s focused, he asks a lot of questions, and you can tell he loves the game.”
When the Cubs signed Arrieta as a free agent this month, brining him back to the organization where he won a Cy Young and World Series, there was no guarantee that he’d recapture his former dominance.
The Cubs are hopeful. Arrieta is expected to claim one of the top three slots in the Cubs rotation, even after battling injuries in recent years. Cubs manager David Ross said this week that he believes Arrieta has a chance to “get back to a version” of the pitcher he was in 2015 and 2016.
Far easier to project, however, is the influence Arrieta will have on his fellow pitchers.https://www.instagram.com/p/CLfBmKMBypC
“He took me under his wing when I first came up to the big leagues, taught me a lot about being a pro,” Cubs ace Kyle Hendricks said. “… Having some young guys that don't necessarily have the experience, he's a great guy to lean on.”
Arrieta, 34, is already proving Hendricks right. Arrieta stayed after his bullpen session Friday to watch Alzolay throw.
“You get to a point in your career where you're not only expected to perform on the field but also off the field,” Arrieta said. “And I take great pride in that. And if I can help him escalate his career, even a little bit, that makes this entire organization that much better.
“I set the tone in the room early on: I want these guys to understand and to know that they can come to me and anytime. Whether it's something personal, something baseball-related, it doesn't matter to me.”
Alzolay, still rookie-eligible after 10 big-league appearances over the past two seasons, is expected to compete for a back-end rotation spot. Trevor Williams, and even Alec Mills, have an experience advantage over Alzolay. But the 25-year-old has shown growth in the past year especially, after developing a new slider.
While Alzolay threw Friday, Arrieta stationed himself against the wall of the bullpen, next to Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy. It had been three years since Arrieta left the Cubs for the Phillies in free agency, but the aura he projected was familiar to Cubs manager David Ross.
Ross and Arrieta were teammates in 2015 when the pitcher capped off a Cy Young season with a complete game shutout in the Wild Card Game. The next season, Ross caught Arrieta’s second career no-hitter and remembers the confidence emanating from Arrieta when he took control of the game plan in late innings.
“That's the kind of teammate Jake was when I was here,” Ross said of Arrieta’s leadership this year. “That hasn't changed. He's still that same guy. And I think there's a willingness from him to want to impact guys and teach and really pass on a lot of experience.”