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


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.

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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."

Cubs executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening


Cubs executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening

Is this the offseason that Cubs executive Jason McLeod finally becomes an MLB general manager?

According to Bruce Levine, the Giants are reportedly interested in McLeod, the Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development, for their vacant general manager position.

McLeod joined the Cubs' front office in 2011 alongside Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Before the Cubs, he spent six years in the Red Sox front office and two in the Padres' (with Hoyer, who was San Diego's general manager from 2010-2011). 

Of course, the Giants' reported interest in McLeod doesn't necessarily mean that he will interview for the job. However, it's worth noting that McLeod interviewed for the Twins' general manager job in 2016; he also withdrew his name from consideration for the Padres' general manager job in 2014. 

In addition to the Giants, McLeod's name has been linked to the Mets' general manager vacancy. This is more speculation, but the point is that it seems to be only a matter of time before McLeod is hired as general manager elsewhere.

For what it's worth, though, McLeod is under contract through 2021 and has previously said that he is grateful to be with the Cubs. 

“I’m exceptionally grateful,” McLeod said. “All of us are. Look at where we are at this moment in time with this team," McLeod said in 2016. "I can’t imagine a better environment, a better culture to work at in baseball.

"We’ve been together a long time. We’re friends. We’re good. We embrace the fact that we are good. And we challenge ourselves to be even better.”

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

The Cubs are heading into a new season with a different hitting coach for the second straight winter, but the most recent choice is a familiar face.

Anthony Iapoce is set to join Joe Maddon's coaching staff this week after serving in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers for the last three seasons. The Cubs confirmed the move Monday afternoon shortly after the news broke out of the Rangers camp.

The Cubs fired Chili Davis last week after just one season as the team's hitting coach.

Entering the final week of the season, the Rangers fired manager Jeff Banister, leaving Iapoce and the rest of the Texas coaching staff in limbo.

As such, Iapoce is rejoining the Cubs, where he served as a special assistant to the General Manager from 2013-15 focusing on player development, particularly in the hitting department throughout the minor leagues.

Iapoce has familiarity with a bunch of the current star offensive players on the Cubs, from Willson Contreras to Kris Bryant. 

Both Bryant and Contreras endured tough 2018 seasons at the plate, which was a huge reason for the Cubs' underperforming lineup. Bryant's issue was more related to a left shoulder injured suffered in mid-May while Contreras' offensive woes remain a major question mark after the young catcher looked to be emerging as a legitimate superstar entering the campaign.

Getting Contreras back to the hitter that put up 21 homers and 74 RBI in only 117 games in 2017 will be one of the main goals for Iapoce, so the history between the two could be a key.

With the Rangers, Iapoce oversaw an offense that ranked 7th, 9th and 14th in MLB in runs scored over the last three seasons. The decline in offensive production is obviously not a great sign, but the Rangers as a team have fallen off greatly since notching the top seed in the AL playoffs in 2016 with 95 wins only to lose 95 games in 2018, resulting in the change at manager.

Iapoce has worked with an offense backed by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo the last few seasons.

Under Iapoce's tutelage, former top prospect Jurickson Profar shed any notion of a "bust" label and emerged as a budding star at age 25, collecting 61 extra-base hits with a .793 OPS in 2018.

When the Cubs let Davis go last week, they provided no update on assistant hitting coach Andy Haines, who just finished his first season in that role and is expected to remain with the team for 2019. The same offseason Iapoce left for the Rangers, Haines took over as the Cubs' minor league hitting instructor.