MESA, Ariz.—Righthander Jose Albertos jumped on the Cubs prospect radar with a blast last summer. Signed in 2015 at 16 for a $1.5 million bonus, the native of Mexico followed a solid extended spring with an outstanding first pro start against Rookie-level AZL Diamondbacks in the opening week of 2016. Albertos, then 17, pitched four scoreless innings in that game, yielding just one hit and one walk while fanning seven. But it was the 98 mph fastball he showed that titillated observers.
And just like that, Albertos disappeared from view.
Well, not really. He wasn't in a witness protection program and his face wasn’t on any milk cartons. Albertos was around Mesa all summer, sitting in Cubs t-shirt and shorts with the extra pitchers at the AZL Cubs games. But a bout of tightness in the forearm prompted the Cubs staff to shut him down for the rest of the season.
The trending question from scouts, agents and fans all summer, fall and into the early spring of this year was #WhenWillAlbertosPitchAgain? But the Cubs were being very cautious with their precious young commodity.
“He was definitely very, very young," said AZL Cubs pitching coach Armando Gabino, “so we needed to make sure he stayed healthy and in a good place. Right now there's no need to rush."
Albertos finally took the mound in an extended spring game in early May, coincidentally on the same Diamondbacks complex field where he pitched his previous game nearly one year earlier. It wasn't long before the Cubs Twitter world exploded with news of Albertos' return. The rust showed as he allowed two hits and walked three batters in three partial innings (extended spring innings can be rolled before three outs are recorded if a pitcher hits his designated pitch count).
Albertos sat 92-94 mph with the fastball, touching 95, but struggled with the command of both his heater and breaking ball. Albertos has since pitched every five or six days, typically three-inning stint, with the fastball usually at 94-96 with good life, an improving breaking ball which is effective when he throws it for strikes, and a plus changeup for which he has good feel. He delivers his pitches with a clean, three-quarters delivery and good arm speed. While the curveball is behind is other pitches, one veteran pro scout said that the mid- to high-70s breaking ball has good rotation and is one of the best he's seen from a young pitcher.
The young righthander is satisfied with his progress so far. “I feel comfortable, I feel really good,” said the 6-foot-1, 185-pounder. “I'm working on my mechanics right now but I feel good and am trying to get better."
While he owns an impressive arsenal of pitches, what stands out most is Albertos' advanced feel for pitching. This pitchability is part of what caught the eye of Cubs scout Sergio Hernandez when he first saw Albertos in a tournament right around the time of the Mexican native's 15th birthday. He was already touching 90-91 with his fastball, and had just signed a contract with the Toros of Tijuana, a Mexican pro team. Before long, other Cubs scouts were keeping an eye on the teenaged prodigy.
“It was everything you look for and a little bit advanced for a kid his age," said Louis Eljaua, the Cubs director of international scouting. “It was something that definitely caught your eye . . . the whole package."
His feel for pitching is a combination of good coaching at a young age and just plain good instincts.
“Some guys have that instinct that's innate in them and other guys it comes with time," Eljaua said. “The really good ones have a combination of both. It's instinctive plus something they master over time."
“When you have something, you have it," Albertos said when asked how he developed his pitchability. “The staff . . . the coaches . . . they help me to be better . . . when you have the talent, you need to work with that talent.
With a lot of downtime over the past 12 months Albertos has been working hard on his conditioning, with his body looking stronger and more firm this spring. He credits the Cubs strength and conditioning staff with giving him a good routine to follow and also to get him eating the right food.
“When they're younger they don't have a routine," Gambino said. “Now he understands how important it is to be responsible, be on time, and do the right thing for his benefit. He's really listened to us, and anything we ask of him he's on top of that."
Now listed at 6-1, Albertos was already taller than six feet when the Cubs started scouting him. By looking at Albertos' father, a former soccer player, Eljaua and his scouts were able to project how Jose would grow, believing that he'll settle in around 6-2 by the time he's done growing.
With extended spring training winding down, all eyes will be on Albertos as he takes the next step, either starting the short-season back in the Arizona League or heading off to Eugene, Ore., with the Cubs' Northwest League affiliate. Regardless, it looks like a bright future.
“With the stuff he has, he can be a No. 1 in the big leagues," Gambino said. “With a couple of years of development in the minor leagues, there's no doubt he's going to be the guy."