Cubs

Closer or not, Cubs believe Hector Rondon can be the man in the ninth inning

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Closer or not, Cubs believe Hector Rondon can be the man in the ninth inning

Joe Maddon loves to tinker with his bullpen and avoid labeling relief pitchers with specific roles.

That helps explain why the Cubs are tied for the major-league lead with seven different pitchers recording a save. (The Cubs are tied with the Tampa Bay Rays, Maddon's old team.) The bullpen is a big reason why the Cubs are 67-49 and thinking about the playoffs heading into Tuesday night's game against the Detroit Tigers at Wrigley Field.

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Maddon also believes Hector Rondon can step up and be "that guy." Still, Maddon won't force the issue because he's seen how a "closer-by-committee" approach can be effective.

"I've done it before," Maddon said. "I'm very comfortable with it. But you always like to have that ninth-inning animal - and I think Rondon is starting to look like that again.

"I'm actually very comfortable with it, but I would never run or walk away from that one guy who can slam it. Never."

Rondon leads the team with 21 saves in 25 chances (though one of those blown saves came against the Milwaukee Brewers last week when shoddy defense let an unearned run score). The flame-throwing right-hander had been demoted earlier this season, notching only three saves between May 21 and July 28, though he didn’t complain about the situation.

“I’ll always be ready,” Rondon said. “I feel like in our bullpen everybody can throw the ninth inning. We have a lot of options.”

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With nine saves since July 29, is it safe to say Rondon is the guy again?

"I prefer not saying anything because he's doing so well," Maddon said. "I've often used that analogy where if you're playing golf with somebody and they're kicking your butt, you might want to point out how nice and slow his backswing is.

"And then the next hole, for sure, the ball is gonna be hooked. So, go play. Just go play. Right now, he's pitching in the ninth inning.

“I like what he's doing. I don't want to put any other burden on his mind."

Since May 22, Rondon has allowed just two earned runs in 36 games (35.2 innings), good for a 0.50 ERA. He has a 1.65 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP this season.

"Man, he's got a different look about him right now," Maddon said. "His confidence is soaring. ... Obviously, in the beginning, he just wasn't on top of his game. And I think what you're seeing right now is his ability to readjust in the moment.

"If he walks the leadoff hitter, he can still gather his thoughts and come back and get some really good hitters after that."

Rondon was all smiles last week after escaping a bases-loaded, no-out jam to finish off a four-game sweep of the San Francisco Giants. He talked about how much he loved closing in that moment, getting to pump his fist after the final out in front of 40,000 screaming fans.

[SHOP CUBS: Gear up, Cubs fans]

But Rondon also understands that nothing is set in stone in Maddon's bullpen.

“I don’t care if he tells me or tells other guys who the closer (is),” Rondon said. “I think the most important (thing) for us is win games.”

Theo Epstein's front office didn't make a trade-deadline move for someone like Jonathan Papelbon, one of those closers you immediately anoint as "the guy." The Cubs are fine with letting Maddon do his thing, mixing and matching on the way to October.

"If you can pull it off - if you have the right personnel and the right leadership - it can really help," Epstein said. "You get everyone involved, you get the right kind of matchups, you get the right pitchers in certain spots in their lineup, and it can be really effective.

"Sometimes the biggest spots are in the seventh inning. Or sometimes they pop up in the eighth or the sixth or in extra innings. The more guys you can have who are battle-tested and trustworthy and match up against certain parts of the other lineup, the better off you are."

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

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USA TODAY

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.