EDITOR’S NOTE: Though the big-league Cubs season has ended, there’s still Cubs-related baseball this year. Eight Cubs prospects will be playing for the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League. AFL games begin Tuesday, and Tim will be presenting profiles of all the Cubs players on the Solar Sox before game action begins.
Most people want to watch the unfiltered best, when it comes to baseball. Or, as close as their team provides. A complete outlier, I love that baseball provides an onion of levels of development. As such, I get to follow how players develop. I get to see how they develop into a team’s pipeline, and through their pipeline. I enjoy learning about players like Manuel Rondon.
The Rondon story starts back in 2011, in reality. That’s when the Cubs drafted Rafael Lopez. A 16th-round choice that June from Florida State, Lopez matriculated through the Cubs system a bit quickly. A college selection, he was more experienced than most. Also, the Cubs system in 2011 had quite a few weak spots.
By 2013, he’d already reached Double-A Tennessee, and posted a .742 OPS. He split the next season between Tennessee, Triple-A Iowa, and two hits in eleven at-bats for the Cubs. Which brings us to 2015. The Cubs were becoming a playoff caliber club. 40-man roster spots were becoming valuable. By late June, Lopez was designated for assignment. He was dealt to Anaheim for Rondon. And the circle of life continued.
With Rondon arriving, I had a new player to become familiar with. In the Anaheim system, he had been... a bit dreadful. His Angels Arizona League ERA had been 8.64. He’d recently faced the Cubs once, and it hadn’t gone very well. Actually, it went quite well for the Cubs. The first five hitters reached by way of hit, as did the seventh hitter.
Nonetheless, the Cubs saw enough to have Rondon be an acceptable piece in the exchange for Lopez. His time for the Mesa Cubs was better than his time with the Angels, but he hadn’t mounted any prospect lists.
After the off-season, he was eyed as a possible starter for the Eugene Emeralds. The Ems were preparing to embark on a “first in many years” championship run, like the parent club. In that run, Rondon was nails. Over 57⅓ innings, his ERA was 1.10. He went 6-1. He was a trendy pick for the back end of Top 30 Cubs lists.
He hit South Bend, and struggled. Over 128⅓ innings, he gave up more hits than innings, and walked too many. As I recall, he tended to struggle mightily in the first. By the end of the season, he was no longer considered a starter, and was left in Mesa when the full-season squads were dispersed.
And, if you’ve followed the “That’s good. No that’s bad” trend that’s been playing, you probably expect the good news, now. Sent initially to South Bend in May 2018, he struggled still, though not as badly as before. In late June, he moved up to Advanced-A Myrtle Beach, and was quite good the rest of the way.
His walks were still a bit higher than you’d prefer. His ERA, however, was 2.10. As he’s been named to the Solar Sox roster, the next challenge awaits. While many people want answers as to how he will respond to the new opportunity, I’m more fascinated that the opportunity awaits. It awaits for a player who was acquired for a player drafted by the prior front office.
His 2018 splits were a bit as expected. Against right-handed hitters, his OPS was an acceptable .663. Against lefty hitters, it was a much more muted .496. In the Arizona Fall League, look for him to be a one-inning style reliever. If he’s successful, Tennessee awaits, along with a valid chance at a major-league career. Which would be an obscenely good return on investment for a player acquired for Lopez, who has 32 MLB career hits.
The Puerto Cabello, Venezuela native has pushed through to the edge of the upper minors. With a good month in Mesa, he’ll still be ignored by the people who assess prospect value. Relievers rarely are considered of value. Until and unless they produce in the major leagues. At which point, people will ask in their own particular way, “Who is this guy?”
At some point in the relatively near future, Rondon may get that chance. Perhaps with the Cubs, or with another team. And when the question of where he came from rolls along, you’re now qualified to answer. “Funny you should ask, but...”