SURPRISE, Arizona -- You know how I have criticized virtually every Rule 5 pick the Cubs have made over the last several seasons, no matter who the GM was who made it?
Maybe, just maybe, the Cubs finally have a keeper.
Hector Rondon threw the eighth inning of a 3-2 loss to the Texas Rangers Wednesday afternoon. And unlike Lendy Castillo, Hector Rondon does appear "ready for prime time." Yes, I know. One appearance, and facing mostly minor leaguers and NRI guys (including two former Cubs, James Adduci and Jeff Baker; Geovany Soto also played, so the only former Cub now in Rangers camp we didn't see was Randy Wells). But Rondon made quick work of the first two hitters he faced with easy ground balls. The next hitter, Baker, smacked a ball to deep center field. Matt Szczur turned the wrong way on it, but nearly caught it anyway. A good major-league center fielder catches that ball; Baker wound up with a double. And then Rondon threw a nasty bender to get Aaron Cunningham on a called third strike.
As I said, one outing. So far, I like what I see.
I can't say the same about Hisanori Takahashi, who's trying to make the bullpen as the second lefty behind James Russell. He threw three innings, and some of it was good -- four strikeouts, and three of them of very good hitters (A.J. Pierzynski once, Adrian Beltre twice). But he also gave up a long home run to Lance Berkman -- it took one bounce off the berm and nearly bounced into the parking lot before someone ran it down -- and issued two walks in the first inning.
Maybe Takahashi still makes it. But he didn't help himself with this outing.
The rest of the Cubs pitchers, in addition to Rondon, did quite well. Michael Bowden threw two solid scoreless innings -- I think he's a lock for the pen in a middle relief role unless he really flops the rest of the spring. Jaye Chapman and Trey McNutt also threw scoreless innings; I suspect both are headed to Iowa this season.
And a word about Steve Clevenger, who was the only Cub to play the entire game Wednesday. He went 1-for-3 and played first base flawlessly. I've heard that Dale Sveum might even try Clevenger at second base in a split-squad game, to see if he can handle other infield positions. Clevenger always hit in the minor leagues, and got off to a tremendously hot start with the Cubs last year before his oblique injury ruined most of his season. If he can hit anywhere near his minor-league numbers, I think he's got a real good shot at making this team as a utility guy. The fact that he can catch helps a lot, as does this:
#Cubs Brent Lillibridge sidelined with strained groin. It's minor, and he could be back next week— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) March 6, 2013
So, the Cubs are looking at guys like Clevenger and Brian Bogusevic, who doubled to deep right-center and drove in a run as the second DH Wednesday, for bench roles. I know, spring stats mean nothing and everything and Joe Mather looked this good last spring, but the more guys vying for those bench roles, the better.
Scott Hairston homered to deep center field in the first inning for the Cubs' first run, the first run of the game, and the first time I've seen them with a lead this spring. That lasted until Takahashi got hit pretty hard in the second inning.
Perhaps the Cubs will win a game this spring. I'm pretty sure of it, in fact. But that doesn't matter as much as the team has several players step up to reserve and bench roles that still need to be filled.
Thursday, the White Sox make their only 2013 visit to Mesa; Carlos Villanueva takes the mound for the Cubs against Jose Quintana.