Cubs

Cubs getting Hector Rondon ready for closing time

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Cubs getting Hector Rondon ready for closing time

MESA, Ariz. — Hector Rondon earned the benefit of the doubt, the luxury of not having to go full throttle every time in spring training. The Cubs watched him evolve from that Rule 5 guy on a 96-loss team to the closer for a World Series favorite.

So there wouldn’t be an overreaction to some bad Cactus League numbers, as much as Cubs fans and the Chicago media remember what happened with Carlos Marmol and Jose Veras and how those ex-closers lost control in Arizona and never seemed to get it back.

Rondon needed only seven pitches to get through the seventh inning during Sunday’s 5-2 win over the Kansas Royals at Sloan Park, getting Drew Butera to pop out in foul territory and striking out Tony Cruz and Terrance Gore to lower his ERA to 17.36.

[MORE: Why Cubs bet $155 million on Jon Lester's left elbow]

Rondon watched the video from his rough outing against the Royals last week and determined he wasn’t tipping his pitches. But in his last three appearances, he had given up nine runs on 13 hits.

“I’m not going to make an excuse for him,” Maddon said, beginning an explanation that sort of sounded like an excuse. “The biggest thing is the ninth inning in Surprise (or) Hohokam. This guy is used to an adrenaline rush. From where I’m standing, I think the stuff looks really good. Probably not commanding it exactly where he wants it.

“As long as he tells me he’s healthy — and he is — and he feels good about himself, that’s all I’m concerned about. I really mean that.”

This time in Mesa, Rondon got a record crowd for a spring-training game (15,523). He doesn’t draw attention to himself because he doesn’t have the eccentric personality expected from closers. But he dominated last year, especially after Maddon gave him a midseason breather and moved him out of closing time.

“He did me a favor,” Rondon said. “Because in that moment, my arm didn’t feel good, my mind wasn’t right. But when he (did that), I took the moment to think about (my position on the team) and start working.

“He didn’t put me in the ninth inning with pressure. Just come into the game and pitch. That helped me a lot.”

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Rondon finished with 30 saves, eight holds, a 1.67 ERA and 15 walks against 69 strikeouts — the numbers that actually matter.

“Seriously, I don’t really feel like (the man),” Rondon said. “(But) I can relax a little bit more, working on little things I need to work on. That is a really big difference. Right now, I feel good and I’m really happy with the situation I’m in.”

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.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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KELLY CRULL

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.