Cubs

Cubs' bullpen shake up continues as Hector Rondon Era comes to an end

1201-hector-rondon.jpg
USA TODAY

Cubs' bullpen shake up continues as Hector Rondon Era comes to an end

The Hector Rondon Era is over on the North Side.

The Cubs declined to offer a 2018 contract to their former closer Friday, part of the effort to reshape their bullpen after a rough postseason for the relief corps.

Rondon saved a combined 77 games in the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons, turning in particularly eye-popping numbers during the 2015 campaign — a 1.67 ERA and 30 saves in 72 appearances — to warrant the title of being one of baseball’s best ninth-inning men.

But those numbers ballooned over the next two seasons, and he was replaced when the Cubs acquired Aroldis Chapman in a midseason trade with the Yankees in 2016. Wade Davis was brought over in an offseason trade with the Royals ahead of the 2017 season.

Rondon earned two saves in the Cubs’ National League Division Series win over the rival Cardinals in 2015. But his numbers were not good in each of the last two postseasons. During the 2016 World Series run, he gave up three runs in six innings of work for a 4.50 ERA. He didn’t pitch during the NLDS against the Nationals this year, but he gave up two runs in his three appearances against the Dodgers in the NLCS, hit with the loss in Game 1 of that series.

Rondon ranks sixth on the Cubs' all-time saves list.

With Davis hitting the free-agent market this winter, the Cubs continue to look for their 2018 closer. Whether it’s Davis, another free-agent signing, a trade acquisition or an internal solution, Rondon won’t be the guy, nor will he be back in what is expected to be a very different-looking bullpen.

The Cubs struggled mightily in relief during their playoff series against the Nationals and Dodgers, with a huge 6.21 ERA in their 37.2 innings of work after the starter departed.

Davis is a free agent, along with Brian Duensing, and now Rondon is no longer in the mix. Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm were tendered contracts for the 2018 season, and Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. remain under contract. Mike Montgomery might or might not end up in the bullpen, as he could be a part of the starting rotation.

The Cubs also made a free-agent signing Friday, adding left-handed reliever Dario Alvarez.

Of course, the most important piece of this 2018 bullpen puzzle is figuring out who will be the team’s closer. In each of the past three seasons, Rondon, Chapman and Davis were huge parts of getting the Cubs to the NLCS — and a World Series win, in the case of 2016. While various members of Joe Maddon’s bullpen experienced stretches of unreliability this past season, Davis was pretty rock solid during the regular season, converting 32 of his 33 save opportunities.

Forget about full schedule, fans at Cubs games; plan for short, bittersweet season

Forget about full schedule, fans at Cubs games; plan for short, bittersweet season

The bad news for the Cubs after Thursday’s scheduled Opening Day is that they’re 0-1. The worse news is that so is everybody in baseball.

And with Friday’s agreement between MLB and the players union addressing the coronavirus shutdown, the only known winner, at least in this city, might be Kris Bryant, who will not lose yet another year before he can become a free agent.

Remember when that was the biggest concern surrounding the Cubs’ season — whether the Cubs were going to trade their star third baseman and whether they could co-exist with him if they didn’t — after beating him in a grievance hearing over service-time manipulation?

That was just last month. And a lifetime ago.

The highlights of the MLB-MLBPA agreement include freezing transactions until a date for resuming play is determined, the assurance that major-leaguer players will accrue full service time for the 2020 season even if it is not played, the likelihood of additional roster spots once play resumes, and $170 million in salary advances to players across multiple contract tiers, most to those with guaranteed deals.

Multiple teams, including the Cubs, optioned players who were on 40-man rosters but not expected to make the club to the minors ahead of the deal Thursday night, which, among other things, prevented service-time accrual. 

Pitcher Dillon Maples was optioned to Triple-A Iowa, leaving 30 members of the Cubs’ 40-man roster still on the active major-league roster. They include three bullpen candidates who are out of options: Alec Mills, Duane Underwood and Casey Sadler.

But the most important element of the plan for fans involves the report that MLB and the players agree to wait until they get the all-clear from health and government officials that mass gatherings are safe again before starting the season. Unless that looks like it won’t happen in time for something feasible, in which case they might discuss playing without fans, possibly using spring training sites.

Some in the game are still suggesting methods for trying to play close to a full 162-game schedule, maybe 140. The hope of a June start and lots of doubleheaders seems popular — maybe with seven-inning games making up the doubleheaders.

But for all the numbers of games, innings and dollars being thrown around and negotiated, only one number continues to matter. On Friday it was close to 1,500.

That’s the number of U.S. deaths attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a number that includes this week a 17-year-old boy in Los Angeles County who reportedly had no underlying risk factors, a 12-year-old girl before that and many others who, by CDC definitions, were not in high-risk groups.

And it’s a number that’s rising fast.

Certainly, baseball officials and players appreciate the gravity of the moment, and that’s why anything and everything seem to be in play as eventual options.

And it’s why for now, regular-season ballparks/weight rooms and spring training facilities finally were shutting down across baseball Friday to all but a select few players who might have specific (such as medical) needs for them.

Cubs Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo are among the individual players across baseball raising awareness and money for those affected, from stadium workers to first responders and small businesses. Cubs manager David Ross published a short video through the team’s Twitter account thanking healthcare workers and encouraging continued safe practices during the crisis.

Jon Lester, Jason Kipnis and others have tweeted about the bigger picture in this time of missing the game.

But the mere suggestion of trying to squeeze most of a full schedule into 2020, against the hope of playing those games in fan-filled stadiums, is perhaps understandably wistful thinking.

If there’s going to be a baseball season this summer/fall, it’s going to be a short one, and it probably should be.

The fewest games played in a season since the two-league format began in 1901 were the 103 games some teams played during the 1981 strike season.

The plan now should involve redrawing schedules for 80- and 100-game contingencies. Plan for no — or extremely limited numbers of — fans. Play the games in spring ballparks; eliminate interleague play; position one league in Florida and one in Arizona — or all in Arizona if it’s safer there than Florida.

An 84-game schedule would allow for a balanced league schedule with six games per opponent. Or unbalanced (albeit, less drastic) schedules could still be used. Restructure the playoffs? OK. Add teams? Sure. Maybe by then those games can even be played in neutral-site, warm-weather or domed stadiums with fans.

A lot of us around sports talk about sports being important to our culture and things like civic pride, or at least as escapes from real-life issues. President Franklin Roosevelt recognized that much in 1942 when he urged MLB to play its season for the good of the country during a war.

But this we haven’t seen before. It’s why so many uncertainties hang in the air even after scheduled openers, months after the virus first was identified, weeks after federal action was taken in this country.

“Worst opening day ever,” Lester tweeted, “but focused on what’s most important right now and that’s keeping the team safe at home so we can get back to baseball soon.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.

Anthony Rizzo discusses foundation's support of health care workers amid COVID-19

Anthony Rizzo discusses foundation's support of health care workers amid COVID-19

Anthony Rizzo and his family’s foundation are working diligently to support the health care workers combatting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Friday, Rizzo appeared on ABC News to discuss the foundation’s campaign to provide meals to hospital workers and staff. To date, they’ve served over a thousand hot meals to frontline workers in Chicago and Florida, in collaboration with the foundation’s restaurant partners.

“A lot of these staff workers don’t know if they’re allowed to go to the grocery store,” Rizzo said on ABC, “because they really are quarantining outside the hospital to stay safe, keep everyone safe.

“We really want to give back to the restaurants and also help the frontline workers, so it's really been a win-win because there's a lot of people in tough times right now and we're just trying to help out any way we can."

Rizzo’s foundation said in a press release Friday the meals have brought many hospital workers tears, overwhelmed in appreciation.

“These health care workers are going every day, many without the proper protection, to care for our loved ones,” the release reads. “They are putting themselves at risk, their families at risk and even foregoing seeing their loved ones for months to protect our families, friends and neighbors.”

(Photos courtesy of the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation)

The foundation asks for anyone interested in supporting the campaign to reach out. Donations can be made by texting HOPE44 to 52000 or by going to rizzo44.com/donate.

The coronavirus has altered everyone's lives and changed daily routines. When asked what his message is to fans, Rizzo said to stay strong together and find a routine that makes you happy.

"We're gonna get through this together; this is tough for everyone," he said. "We all want to be playing baseball, we all want sports on television. A lot of people want to be going to work on a daily basis to get back into that routine. 

"It's hard to be home 24/7 but everyone is doing this together, so you're not alone."