First Aroldis Chapman, now Wade Davis, but Cubs still see Hector Rondon as a big part of their plans

First Aroldis Chapman, now Wade Davis, but Cubs still see Hector Rondon as a big part of their plans

The Cubs added a closer this summer to a team that had been 56-1 when leading entering the ninth inning – and then made the bullpen a top priority this winter – and still insist it’s nothing personal with Hector Rondon.
“It’s been Aroldis Chapman and Wade Davis,” team president Theo Epstein said. “There’s fewer than 10 people, maybe, on the planet that you would move Rondon out of the closer’s role for, in my opinion. But those happen to be two of them.” 
Kenley Jansen would be another, and the Los Angeles Dodgers plowed ahead on Monday with a reported five-year, $80 million deal to bring back their 270-pound version of Mariano Rivera.
This after a week where Mark Melancon and Chapman shattered the record for a closer contract, with the San Francisco Giants reacting to their bullpen meltdown against the Cubs in the playoffs with a four-year, $62 million investment and Chapman returning to the New York Yankees on a five-year, $86 million deal.  
When you have a chance to get Chapman, “you better take it,” Rondon said after the Cubs completed that blockbuster trade with the Yankees in late July, handling his demotion with class and promising to do whatever it takes to help the team win. 
But the Cubs never really got the bullpen they envisioned. Rondon went almost two full weeks in between appearances before the Cubs finally placed him on the disabled list with a strained right triceps in the middle of August. By the World Series, manager Joe Maddon clearly didn’t trust Rondon, who only pitched in Game 1 (a 6-0 loss) and Game 4 (a 7-2 loss) against the Cleveland Indians.  
“I talked to Rondon,” Maddon said last week after the Cubs acquired Davis from the Kansas City Royals. “When a guy gets hurt like that, I feel like I’m responsible. Part of that is maybe using him too much in different situations. 
“At the end of the year, he wasn’t as effective as he had been. And I really believe that sometimes you use a guy too much. So I wanted him to understand and know that by bringing Wade in, (we’d) try to take some of the burden off these guys earlier in the year.
“You have to be cognizant of all that after you play to November 2, moving to the next year, because you want to do it again.”

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Only the Cubs could give up a Cuban outfielder with enormous potential (Jorge Soler) – and get a two-time All-Star closer who notched the final out of the 2015 World Series – and still have it be considered a “quiet” winter meetings.      
But Davis – who requires only a one-year, $10 million commitment – makes too much sense for the defending champs in an overheated market for closers. 
Rondon has big-picture perspective as someone who thought about quitting baseball when it looked like injuries would derail his career before he ever got to the big leagues. Once one of the best pitching prospects in Cleveland’s farm system, Tommy John surgery and elbow complications nearly wiped out Rondon’s 2010, 2011 and 2012 seasons.
That Rule 5 pick is already a huge success story after saving 77 games in a Cubs uniform, which MLB Trade Rumors projects as a $5.7 million payday through the arbitration system. 

Only seven months ago, FanGraphs published a story on how Rondon had been so dominant that he was breaking the Fielding Independent Pitching metric. When healthy, Rondon has all the makings of an elite setup guy, close to triple-digit velocity, swing-and-miss stuff, a feel for pitching and a sense of calm under pressure.
“He understands Wade being there,” Maddon said. “I also want him to understand that Wade can’t do it all the time, and that he needs to be ready and prepared to do it, which he will be.
“I told him how much I respect him. And, again, he’s all about the team, so it’s just one of those things: Wade will close, but these other guys are going to benefit because of that.”    

What Cubs lineup could look like in 2020 if Kris Bryant leads off

What Cubs lineup could look like in 2020 if Kris Bryant leads off

Kris Bryant told reporters Wednesday he's offered to leadoff for the Cubs this season to manager David Ross. And while nothing is set in stone, the 2016 NL MVP is one of the Cubs’ best options for the role.

Bryant isn’t a prototypical leadoff guy but it’s not like we’re discussing a cleanup man moving to the No. 1 spot in the lineup. Yes, he has power, but he’s also an on-base machine (career .385 OBP) who accepts his walks (career 11.9 percent walk rate).

Considering Bryant’s plate discipline, opponents will either have to pitch to him or run the risk of walking him ahead of Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras. Bryant leading off will give those guys more RBI opportunities. He’s also one of the Cubs’ best baserunners, and his ability to take an extra base benefits those hitting behind him.

It’s important to note Bryant wouldn’t change his approach in the top spot — his power won't just disappear. He has a career .502 OBP with the bases empty and could put the Cubs ahead right away with a long ball or put them in business with an extra-base hit.

Bryant will be himself no matter where he hits: an elite on-base guy who almost always puts together a quality at-bat. He’s as good a leadoff candidate as any on the Cubs (no disrespect meant to Anthony Rizzo, aka the “Greatest Leadoff Hitter Of All-Time”).

If Bryant leads off, here's what standard lineups could look like, both against righties and lefties:

Versus RHP

1. (R) Kris Bryant (3B)
2. (L) Anthony Rizzo (1B)
3. (R) Javier Báez (SS)
4. (L) Kyle Schwarber (LF)
5. (R) Willson Contreras (C)
6. (L) Jason Heyward (RF)
7. (R) David Bote
8. Pitcher
9. (S) Ian Happ (CF)

Former Cubs manager Joe Maddon liked to alternate lefties and righties in his lineup. With MLB’s new three-batter minimum rule for relievers, I stuck to that mentality to create a late-inning advantage for the Cubs.

Schwarber-Báez-Rizzo looks lethal and is somewhat interchangeable. Rizzo recently said he prefers hitting third or fourth but will hit where Ross wants him. Ross suggested Wednesday Rizzo will hit behind Bryant; it looks unorthodox but Ross can always adjust it. 

Rizzo has fared well hitting second and hitting him there keeps him and Bryant back-to-back.

Rizzo hitting second (237 plate appearances): .300/.401/.515, 153 wRC+.

I like Báez getting RBI chances behind Bryzzo, the Cubs’ two best on-base guys. And, he mashes in the three hole:

Báez career hitting third (118 plate appearances): .366/.398/.571, 161 wRC+ 

Similarly, Schwarber has been more successful hitting cleanup than any other spot:

Schwarber career hitting fourth (68 plate appearances): .393/.441/.787, 211 wRC+

Those aren't the biggest sample sizes, but the numbers are eye-popping. Contreras and Heyward hitting fifth and sixth brings us back to a more traditional Cubs lineup. The second base competition is wide-open, but I'll give Bote a slight edge after he hit .274 with a .425 OBP post-All-Star break last season.

Bote will also play some third, which is when we'll see Daniel Descalso and Jason Kipnis (if he makes the roster) at second.

RELATED: Cubs roster projection 1.0: Bullpen, second base competitions are wide open

From there, I like a pitcher hitting eighth and Happ hitting ninth as a second leadoff guy. He has a good eye for the strike zone and his ability to get on base will give the top of the order more RBI chances.

Now, for the lineup against lefty starting pitchers:

1. (R) Kris Bryant (3B)
2. (L) Anthony Rizzo (1B)
3. (R) Javier Báez (SS)
4. (L) Kyle Schwarber (LF)
5. (R) Willson Contreras (C)
6. (L) Jason Heyward OR (R) Steven Souza Jr. (RF)
7. (R) Albert Almora Jr. (CF)
8. Pitcher
9. (R) David Bote (2B)

Ross believes in a structured lineup, so this looks pretty similar to the previous order. Heyward isn’t going to sit against every lefty starter, but when he does Souza’s power bat will fit in nicely in the sixth spot.

In this scenario, Hoerner is in Triple-A and Bote is the starting second baseman against lefties. Where Bote hits is contingent on Almora. I’d put Bote ninth when Almora is in the lineup because the former is more of an on-base threat. Almora’s contact-oriented approach could help move ahead any baserunners ahead of him. The same can be said about Bote, but I like the idea of him getting on base for the top of the order.

Happ, a switch-hitter, will also start against righties and I can see him hitting sixth, seventh or ninth. A lot of this hinges on how he, Almora and Bote are performing at the plate. Each will get their at-bats, but the Cubs need one to emerge as a consistent contributor.

Do these groupings look unfamiliar? Sure, but Bryant leading off will put us in new waters. Again, nothing is set in stone, and the Cubs have a ton of lineup combinations for this season. Seeing Bryant atop the order sure looks like an enticing possibility, however.

Kris Bryant to get a shot as Cubs leadoff hitter

Kris Bryant to get a shot as Cubs leadoff hitter

The leadoff spot has been in flux for the Cubs since Dexter Fowler left after the 2016 season. A new chapter in that role could soon be coming.

According to multiple reports, Kris Bryant talked about leading off for the Cubs in a meeting with new manager David Ross and it sounds like he will get a chance to do just that.

The Cubs have been creative with the leadoff spot without the lack of a traditional leadoff hitter on the roster. Anthony Rizzo even has 57 games in the leadoff spot in his career.

Bryant has had seven starts at the top of the order. He hit .321/.387/.464 in those games.

The Cubs' own Twitter account has made it semi-official by poking fun at Bryant as a leadoff hitter.

What this would do to the rest of the Cubs' lineup is going to be interesting. Bryant primarily batted second or third last year. Putting him at leadoff could separate him from Rizzo and Javy Baez in the middle of the lineup. Ross could also continue to change things up and put Baez or Rizzo second to keep the team's best three hitters back-to-back-to-back in the order.

Ross hasn't even managed a spring training game yet, but this could be his first big change. With the first spring training game coming up on Saturday, we should get a clue as to how Ross plans to send the team out. Suddenly the batting order is something to keep an eye on.

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