Cubs

Was Hector Rondon tipping pitches during late-game meltdowns with Cubs?

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USA TODAY

Was Hector Rondon tipping pitches during late-game meltdowns with Cubs?

Hector Rondon may be the most polarizing figure in the Cubs bullpen, if not the entire roster.

When he comes into games right now, a huge population of Cubs fans freak out on Twitter with some combination of annoyance, frustration or WTF reactions.

Look at the responses to this Tweet when he was called upon to pitch the seventh inning of Sunday night's win over the St. Louis Cardinals.

But how is that possible? Exactly a year ago, he was the dominant closer for the best team in baseball with a 1.95 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and 18 saves in 22 chances.

Rondon struggled down the stretch last season after the Cubs sent four players to New York for Aroldis Chapman and Rondon also had a triceps injury that limited him to just 11 games from Aug. 2 on.

In that span, the veteran right-hander struggled to get right with an ugly 12.46 ERA, allowing a .415 average and 1.272 OPS to opposing hitters.

Rondon was better in the postseason (4.50 ERA, 1.50 WHIP), but was pitching in low-leverage spots and was not one of Joe Maddon's trusted options in the World Series.

Could it all be because he was tipping his pitches?

Rondon acknowledges how the triceps issue could've affected his mechanics, but he actually thinks he was telegraphing his pitches too much and that was something he's had to work on correcting over the last year.

"I feel like we fixed the mechanics because we felt like last year, I was tipping some pitches," Rondon said, pointing to the way opposing batters hit him as the main reason for his line of thinking.

"Sometimes you can throw a really nasty pitch and they hit it and there's no reason to think they'll hit that pitch in that location. So you start to think that way. I think that's what it was."

Rondon admitted he feels really good right now, and the radar gun is showing it. He's throwing harder in July than he ever has before and hit 100 mph on the radar gun Sunday night.

Rondon hasn't hit 100 in a couple seasons and the last time he did so, he tipped his cap to his fellow relievers in the Cubs bullpen. But he's not settling just for 100 now.

"My goal is to hit 101 mph this year and then I'll tip my cap to them again," he said, smiling.

Rondon's confidence has also been a big factor ever since the Chapman move and it's something Maddon has been particularly focused on this season.

Rondon was pitching at a high level, then was demoted from closer for Chapman, then bypassed for the closer's role again this offseason as the Cubs traded for Wade Davis. Not to mention the clear lack of confidence Maddon had in Rondon last fall.

So when Maddon turned to Rondon with the bases loaded and nobody out in that disastrous eighth inning Friday afternoon and the end result was cringeworthy, the Cubs manager instantly took the blame for that.

"I immediately went up to him and I told him, 'I put you in a bad spot, brother. Please throw that one away,'" Maddon said. "I wanted him to know, 'Listen, you're throwing the ball way too well to worry about that moment.'"

With a two-run lead in the seventh inning of the rubber game against the Cardinals Sunday night, Maddon again called on Rondon and despite a walk and an infield hit, Rondon escaped the inning unscatched for his career-high eighth hold.

"He came out and I got right in his face in that moment and said, 'Man, that is IT. Now I just want you to focus on making pitches and believe that you're gonna make the pitch that you want to make,'" Maddon said. "His stuff [Sunday] was as good as I've ever seen it. Ever.

"You stand [in the dugout] that close to the hitter, you can really see that jump at home plate with guys with the really elite fastballs. And that's what I saw [Sunday] night. Now throw that elite fastball where you want to and heads up. 'Cause the slider's back."

Even with Friday's performance (four earned runs without recording an out), Rondon is sporting a 3.86 ERA since June 14 with 19 strikeouts in 14 innings.

Take that Friday game out of it and Rondon's numbers look like this for the last five weeks: 1.29 ERA, 1.00 WHIP.

Rondon has also been chatting a lot with Davis, a wise former starter who has morphed into one of the most dominant relievers on the planet for the last half-decade. One of the things the two veterans have been discussing is how to harness the elite-level stuff Rondon possesses.

"It's a good relationship and I'm glad to hear that specifically because that's exactly what Ronnie needs to do — go out there with a plan, as opposed to just going out there, winding up and throwing a pitch and hoping it doesn't get hit," Maddon said.

"[He needs to be focused on hitting spots.] 'I want it there. I want it there.' When he does that, heads up, because it's gonna be lights out."

How Addison Russell plans to keep nagging arm/foot injuries at bay in 2018

How Addison Russell plans to keep nagging arm/foot injuries at bay in 2018

Addison Russell doesn't have time to think about whether or not Javy Baez is coming for the starting shortstop gig.

Russell is too busy making sure he's able to perform at his physical peak for as much of 2018 as possible after a rough few years in that regard.

The soon-to-be-24-year-old only played in 110 games last year as he missed more than a month with a foot injury. He also has a history of hamstring injuries (including the one that kept him out of the 2015 NLCS) and a sore throwing arm that has cropped up at times throughout the last few years (though whether the arm is an issue or not depends on who you ask).

Russell admits his arm has been an issue and he has a new plan of attack this winter that will carry into the spring.

"I've been doing a throwing program," Russell said. "I feel like in the past, with my arm, I started throwing a little bit too early in spring training.

"This year, in the offseason, just kinda ease into it a little bit. In the offseason last year, I feel like I threw a little bit too much. Once midseason hit, it was all the downward effect of me throwing too early in the offseason.

"Having that in mind, taking things easier in the offseason and then going into spring training and then once the season's here, maybe around a quarter of the way through the season, start revving it up and that way, I'll be able to last with both my foot and my arm."

Russell had a bad case of plantar fasciitis last summer that also affected his ability to throw the ball to first base.

He joked he feels like an old man because he is happy he can now wake up without any pain in the foot, but still makes sure he rolls his foot on a golf ball to keep things loose.

With regards to his offseason workouts, Russell is prioritizing quality over quantity and he's taken full advantage of the longer offseason that featured far less distractions than a year ago when the Cubs were coming off the first World Series championship in 108 years.

"I'm getting a little bit older and I think a little wiser when it comes to training and knowing my body," Russell said. "With that being said, it's just kinda being in tune to my body more than pounding out weights.

"Definitely running and cardio is something that has been beneficial to my career in the past. I'm keeping up with that."

Between the foot and arm modifications to his training regimen, Russell is hoping to cut down on some of his throwing errors that plagued him in 2017 and try to get back to the hitter he was when he clubbed 24 homers and drove in 108 runs in 168 games between the 2016 regular season and postseason.

"Definitely I want to be in the All-Star Game this next year," Russell said. "I feel like with the type of skillset that I have and the type of guys around me, I think that could be a goal that I could hit.

"Smaller goals as far as staying consistent with my workouts. Remaining flexible is a huge goal that I wanna hit this year. I see a lot of veteran guys after ballgames stretching and they've been playing for quite a while, so it definitely works out for them.

"Just taking something from veteran guys and kinda incorporating it into my game and picking their ear and listening to how they prepare and how to keep your body in shape is beneficial, for sure."

To make the All-Star Game, Russell would need to get out to a hot start, which is something the Cubs and their fans would love to see. His steady presence in the lineup and as a defensive anchor contributed to the inconsistencies of the 2017 Cubs.

Entering a pivotal season in his development, Russell has emerged as one of the biggest X-factors surrounding the Cubs entering 2018. 

The entire Addison Russell 1-on-1 interview will air Friday night on NBC Sports Chicago.

Cubs announce minor league staff for 2018, with many familiar faces receiving new roles

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USA TODAY

Cubs announce minor league staff for 2018, with many familiar faces receiving new roles

The Cubs finalized their minor league staffs for 2018 on Thursday, making changes at numerous staff positions.

The organization has retained managers Marty Pevey (Triple-A Iowa), Mark Johnson (Double-A Tennessee), and Buddy Bailey (Single-A Myrtle Beach) and Jimmy Gonzalez (Single-A South Bend). New to the organization is former Philadelphia Phillies' catcher Steven Lerud. Lerud, 33, will manage Single-A Eugene in 2018.

Eugene also added Jacob Rogers to its staff as assistant hitting coach. Rogers, 28, played in the Cubs organization from 2012-2016. Also new to the organization is Paul McAnulty, who is the new assistant hitting coach for South Bend. McAnulty, 36, played in parts of four seasons with the Padres from 2005-2008 and with the Angels in 2010. He recently served as a coach in the Angels' system in 2016.

Those with new roles for 2018 include Chris Valaika, who is now an assistant coach with Triple-A Iowa. Valaika, 32, began his coaching career last season with rookie league Mesa after playing ten seasons professionally. The former utility player hit .231 in 44 games with the Cubs in 2014.

Like Valaika, former Cubs' farmhand Ben Carhart has a new role with the organization for 2018. Carhart, 27, is now an assistant coach with South Bend after serving as a rehab coach with Mesa last season. From 2012-2016, he hit .270 in 372 minor league games, all in the Cubs' organization.

The Cubs also announced their minor league coordinators for 2018. Holdovers include Darnell McDonald and John Baker. McDonald played for the Cubs in 2013 and will return for his fourth season as the organization's mental skills coordinator. Baker, who played for the Cubs in 2014, will return for his second season as a mental skills coordinator.

Jeremy Farrell returns to the organization for a third season, although 2018 will be his first as the Cubs' minor league infield coordinator. Farrell played in the White Sox farm system from 2013-2015 and is the son of former Red Sox and Blue Jays' manager John Farrell.

Here is a complete list of the organization's major league training staff and minor league managers and staff for 2018: