Cubs

Hector Rondon understands why Cubs would make big trade with Yankees

Hector Rondon understands why Cubs would make big trade with Yankees

Hector Rondon won’t take it personally if the Cubs raid the New York Yankees at the Aug. 1 trade deadline, strengthening their bullpen with Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller and cementing their status as World Series favorites. 

Rondon has perspective after a long journey, signing with the Cleveland Indians as a teenager out of Venezuela, becoming one of the brightest pitching prospects in that organization, coming back from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and going from Rule 5 afterthought to elite closer for a first-place team. 

“If they bring in a Chapman or a Miller, if they put him in my spot, whatever, s--- happens,” Rondon said before getting the last two outs in Monday night’s 5-1 win over the New York Mets at Wrigley Field. “I can’t control that. The most important thing for me is to come into the game, pitch my inning – whatever inning they put me in – and do my job.”

As the Cubs began a rematch of last year’s National League Championship Series, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer still had two more weeks to go shopping for a team that once seemed like it had everything, at least until a downturn before the All-Star break.  

The issue isn’t Rondon, who’s now 16-for-20 in save chances, putting up a 1.64 ERA and only four walks against 42 strikeouts in 33 innings. It’s trying to shorten games for a slumping rotation, reacting to a weak market for starting pitchers and giving manager Joe Maddon another late-inning weapon. 

“If we get one of those guys, I’m fine,” Rondon said. “It’s better for us. If not, I think we have a really good group in the bullpen. I know it’s a long season, and sometimes we struggle, but most of the time this year, we’ve been good.”

Rondon will also welcome Joe Nathan’s presence, viewing the addition of a six-time All-Star closer the same way he processed the Rafael Soriano and Fernando Rodney deals last season.  

“I’ve tried to learn as much as I can,” Rondon said. “Especially Nathan, he’s got (300)-something saves. Any information he can give to me – or anything we can talk about – I (will) try to learn as fast as I can. They’ve been through tough situations.”

Nathan made back-to-back appearances with Triple-A Iowa over the weekend, a significant checkpoint in his recovery from a second Tommy John procedure on his right elbow.

“All I know is that he’s getting closer,” Maddon said. “I also know that from his perspective he’s willing to do anything for us.”

Maddon said Nathan – who’s 41 and hasn’t thrown a pitch in The Show since April 2015 – “definitely” wouldn’t start out as a ninth-inning option for the Cubs. 

“But you would definitely feel good about his experience,” Maddon said. “He’s a veteran. He knows what he’s doing out there. (We’d be) trying to find out where he’s at on the major-league stage.”

Upgrading the bullpen is an obvious move, but those first impressions could ultimately influence just how desperate the Cubs might feel at the trade deadline. 

“If we have the answers in-house, then it makes it a lot easier,” Maddon said. “It’s important to get a look, and it does help Theo and Jed regarding what they may be wanting to do as we get closer.”

The Yankees have been under .500 after the All-Star break for the first time since 1995 and considering their first sell-off in a generation. Miller – an All-Star reliever who’s signed through the 2018 season with a reasonable $9 million annual salary – makes sense for a New York franchise that refuses to do a total teardown. Chapman would be a rental player who comes with triple-digit velocity and the stain from the 30-game suspension he served this season under Major League Baseball’s new domestic violence policy.

[SHOP: Buy a 'Try Not to Suck' shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

Rondon is 28 years old, under club control through the 2018 season and ready to do whatever the Cubs ask in a pennant race.

“He is one of the best out there, there’s no question,” Maddon said. “Rondon has taken it to another level here. When you give him the ball – and when you talk to him in tight moments on the mound – he is very much in the present tense right now.

“If things go a little bit awry, I’m not seeing it get too quick on him, and that’s what I really like. Now stuff-wise – outstanding – fastball velocity, the slider, he’s throwing somewhat of a changeup/split. He’s got all kinds of pitcher.

“Ronnie’s a closer that pitches. He’s just not out there throwing as hard as he can, and that’s really the beauty of him. Again, remember, this guy is still learning. He’s still young and he’s going to keep getting better. 

“We got to keep him well. I can’t abuse him, because he has pitch-ability beyond just being a guy that throws hard. And that’s where he’s going to separate himself in the years to come.”    

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

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

adbert.jpg
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.