<
>

Panic time for closer Hector Rondon? Not yet, but let's keep watching

MESA, Ariz. -- As the at-bats, appearances and innings begin to accumulate this spring, we're often reminded to ignore the statistics -- especially when they aren’t very good. Chicago Cubs closer Hector Rondon might want to take that advice, but should the team ignore his 22.09 ERA after a five-run performance in just 2/3 of an inning Wednesday?

Rondon has been getting hit more and more as March inches closer to the regular season.

“As long as he’s healthy, that’s all I’m concerned about,” manager Joe Maddon said Thursday. “I really mean that.”

But isn’t there a point when performance does matter? Let’s take an extreme situation. What if Rondon has a few more outings like Wednesday, when he gave up seven hits to the Kansas City Royals in less than an inning pitched? There’s little doubt that about 95 percent of the time, spring statistics don’t matter, but once in a while, they foreshadow what’s to come.

“Always when you come in to pitch, you want to throw well, but it’s no big deal,” Rondon said. “The next three, four outings, I don’t want to give up runs, but if they score and my location and pitches are OK, then it’s no big deal.”

Player and team were saying the same things about Carlos Marmol in the spring of 2013 and Jose Veras in 2014. Both closers struggled in spring training and carried that to the regular season. These were not coincidences. These pitchers looked equally bad in April and March, but the Cubs ignored the signs.

Marmol had a 6.97 spring ERA and gave up five runs in his first three appearances of the regular season. He lost the closer’s job within a week. Veras had a 7.00 ERA, then gave up 10 runs in six April appearances and lost his ninth-inning gig. It’s pretty demoralizing to lose games in the final innings right out of the gate in April.

“I feel good,” Rondon said. “My velocity is coming. My location is good. I’m not worried about those runs.”

Maddon rolled out all the usual reasons -- some might say excuses -- to ignore results in the spring, including a common one for closers.

“The biggest thing is the ninth inning at Hohokam [against Oakland] or the ninth inning in Surprise [against Kansas City]," Maddon said. "I mean, this guy is used to an adrenaline rush."

In other words, closers with nothing on the line can’t always muster what’s needed to perform in a meaningless game. In that case, how do we explain Rondon’s 1.00 ERA last spring? His adrenaline was just fine then, and coincidence or not, Rondon had a great April, as he went scoreless in his first six appearances and nine of his first 10. Everything is relative, and if other pitchers are having some spring success, why not one of the most important pitchers on the team?

“I have zero concern because I know he’s healthy,” Maddon said.

Marmol and Veras also were healthy. But let’s be clear: Every situation is different. The hitters are different, what the pitchers are working on is different, and their track records are different. It’s not like Marmol and Veras were coming off 45-save seasons.

The lesson here is that no one should be worried at this particular moment, but if Rondon hasn’t righted the ship 10 days from now, there will be cause for concern.

After all, he is human. If he’s awful for seven or eight straight outings, wouldn’t there be some loss of self-confidence heading into April? This isn’t Mariano Rivera we’re talking about. One or two decent outings make this all a moot point, but until that happens, all eyes should be on the Cubs' incumbent closer.

He was lights-out last year -- 30 saves and a 1.67 ERA -- but that’s in the past, just like Marmol and Veras quickly became. Both failed to finish the season with the team.