The first major domino in the Cubs’ offseason fell as the team decided not to tender a contract to right-handed relief pitcher Hector Rondon. Rondon made $5.8 million last season and was projected to make about $6.2 million in 2018, which would have been his final year of arbitration before he became an unrestricted free agent next winter.
That price tag proved too steep for the Cubs, who elected to make Rondon a free agent a year early. Next season, for the first time since 2012, the soon-to-be-30-year-old will not be an integral part of the Chicago bullpen.
As Rondon departs, it’s worth remembering how much value he actually provided for the Cubs over the years. His struggles in 2017–a 4.24 ERA and 10 home runs allowed–partially obscure what has been one of the most distinguished runs for a Cubs reliever this decade.
The right-hander was once a top prospect of the Cleveland Indians as a starter, but injuries limited him to just 10 minor-league innings combined in 2011 and 2012. Cleveland left him unprotected in the 2012 Rule 5 draft, and the Cubs grabbed him. Ultimately adding a pitcher who would appear in at least 40 games for the team for five straight years.
After posting a 4.77 ERA in his first full season as reliever in 2013, Rondon blossomed in 2014. He compiled a 2.42 ERA while slicing his walk rate nearly in half. The next season he bettered even that lofty standard, lowering his ERA to 1.67, the fifth-best mark among all relievers. Along the way, he won the closer’s job and saved 59 games over the two seasons, including some of the Cubs’ biggest wins.
Rondon’s mid-90s fastball and sharp, downward-breaking slider helped make him one of the best relievers in the league over a two-season stretch. His 3.2 fWAR between 2014 and 2015 ranked 12th among all relievers, close to much more heralded names such as Trevor Rosenthal and Zach Britton.
The Venezuela native was dominant again in the first half of 2016, pitching to a 1.95 ERA with the best strikeout rate of his career before the trade for Aroldis Chapman. After the trade, the Cubs chose to demote Rondon to setup man. He struggled down the stretch before throwing just six innings during the team’s World Series run. 2017 was a struggle, as the big righty’s home run rate spiked and he finished with his highest ERA since his first year with the team.
Still, there were signs that Rondon can regain his dominant form. His strikeout rate was again the highest of his career (10.83 K/9) and in the second half of 2017 his fastball was harder than its ever been, touching 100 a few times. Some team will probably take a chance on him and he could wind up returning to the upper echelon of relievers elsewhere.
The departure of Rondon, coupled with the likely departure of Wade Davis, leaves a hole in the back of the Cubs’ bullpen. As I’ve already discussed this offseason, one of Chicago’s top priorities will be finding a replacement for Davis as the team’s closer. Rondon was the most likely candidate for the job, but the Cubs’ choice to non-tender him probably clears the way for Carl Edwards Jr. to assume the ninth-inning role.
The rail-thin right-hander certainly has the stuff to be a closer. His fastball spins at one of the highest rates in the league despite lacking elite velocity. His slider is devastating when he controls it–but his command and confidence fluctuated in 2017. If he’s not ready to close, the job could fall to Pedro Strop. However, Strop has also suffered through bouts of inconsistency.
To shore up the rest of the bullpen, the Cubs made an acquisition on the same day they let Rondon go. The team signed left-hander Dario Alvarez to a one-year deal, after a season in which the 28-year-old walked 14 hitters in 16.1 big-league innings and spent part of the season at Triple-A.
Despite the apparent command issues last season, Alvarez is an intriguing pitcher. His fastball stays in the low 90s, but his slider is hard and he throws it more than almost anyone else in the league–61.4 percent of the time last season. That slider helped him strike out nearly 14 hitters per nine innings as recently as 2016.
If Alvarez can fix his control problems, he could be a key component in the Cubs’ bullpen in 2018. With Brian Duensing also a free agent, the LOOGY (that’s Left-handed One Out GuY for the uninitiated) spot could be open next season. The Hot Stove League marches on.