MESA, Ariz. - Is Hector Rondon an elite closer?
That question has yet to be truly answered, but the Cubs believe the 28-year-old right-hander is on the right track.
After the Jose Veras experiment blew up in 2014, Rondon took over as the Cubs' closer, saving 29 games with a 2.42 ERA that season.
Last year, he began the season in the ninth-inning role before losing sole possession of the spot midseason.
After about two months of Rondon and Jason Motte sharing the role, Rondon caught fire and never relinquished his spot as stopper from July 29 onward, even though manager Joe Maddon refused to name an official closer.
"He came back [to closer] and nailed it down towards the end of the year," Maddon said. "I was very proud of the way he handled all that. And he should be.
"He could have easily complained, cried, made it very, very difficult for a lot of people, but he didn't. He took the adjustment the proper way, came back and was better than ever."
From July 29 on, Rondon was 18-for-19 in save opportunities, posting a 1.38 ERA and 1.00 WHIP while striking out 30 batters in 26 innings.
He picked up three saves in the Cubs' four-game sweep over the San Francisco Giants Aug. 6-9, including the final game of the series when Rondon loaded the bases with nobody out before bearing down and striking out the side to ensure a 2-0 victory.
That series really put the Cubs on the fast track to contention and Rondon was right in the thick of things, picking up 15 saves in the final two months of the season.
It's that kind of aggression that has the Cubs excited for the future, which is what Maddon told Rondon in their one-on-one meeting as spring training got underway.
"The point I wanted to make to him was that you definitely have another level to achieve," Maddon said. "He was really good towards the end of the season. Really nice.
"But now his mind's going to catch up with all these other [physical] abilities. The ability to process the moment, the ability to understand what the right pitch to throw is in the moment.
"And if something starts getting sped up a bit, to slow it down. Those are the next things for him to be able to do. And when he does, you're really going to see some saves come out of this guy."
When the Cubs took Rondon out of the closer's role last season, they wanted to see him pitch within the strike zone more, going right after guys instead of nibbling.
Rondon's 1.67 season ERA was topped by only two pitchers with at least 10 saves - Aroldis Chapman (1.63 ERA) and Wade Daves (0.94).
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But does Rondon - who finished tied for 20th in Major League Baseball with 30 saves - feel like he has established himself as a closer?
"I don't know," he said. "Especially with my position last year - I lost my job and then I got it back.
"I'm really happy with the job I did last year and I feel like I'm in position [to do that again] this year."
Maddon, however, gave Rondon a vote of confidence.
"He's establishing himself as a legitimate closer right now," Maddon said. "I really anticipate to see even better work from him this year."