Zambrano's not out of the Cubs picture yet

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Zambrano's not out of the Cubs picture yet

DALLAS The Cubs arent talking about Carlos Zambrano in the past tense yet.

There are enough people left over from the old regime that the new administration knows Zambranos history, how he has said sorry before.

Publicly, the Cubs have presented the opportunity to earn his way back, though its unclear whether its because theyre desperate for innings or trying to create some sort of trade value.

Dale Sveum brought out a familiar talking point on Tuesday in Dallas, saying that a top three of Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Zambrano would be enough to hang in the National League Central.

The new manager hasnt spoken with Zambrano yet, but wants to get to know him and is trying to contact every player before Christmas.

I dont think theres a message you send with a guy, Sveum said. He knows his track record. Its not something I have to mention to him. He knows what hes done in the past and knows hes got to change that past. If you put those three guys at the top of your rotation, you got a chance of winning with the bullpen that we have.

The Miami Marlins remain a logical landing spot, because of Zambranos relationship with manager Ozzie Guillen, his close friend from Venezuela. People close to Zambrano say he would benefit greatly from a change of scenery, and would be hungry to prove himself again.

In trying to create the same sort of buzz the Miami Heat did, the Marlins could wind up spending more than 300 million this week on Jose Reyes and Albert Pujols. They are box-office draws and offensive catalysts. But, eventually, the Marlins will have to focus on starting pitching.

Zambrano is owed 18 million next season, while Alfonso Soriano is guaranteed 54 million across the next three years. The Cubs would have to pay a huge sum to get rid of either player.

In general, I think eating money on a deal if the return is right then sometimes it can make sense, general manager Jed Hoyer said.

Both players have no-trade rights, and the Cubs will be extremely reluctant to include those clauses in future contracts.

You never want to say never, Hoyer said, but at the same time, it was a strict policy in Boston against giving no-trades. And I think its the right policy because you end up in those situations where youre in a tough spot. Theyre to be avoided.

The Cubs will have to be creative in finding pitching solutions, because there arent many frontline starters available and the cost figures to be prohibitive. Hoyer pointed to under-the-radar signings like Ryan Vogelsong, who hadnt pitched in the big leagues since 2006 but signed late and went 13-7 with a 2.71 ERA for the San Francisco Giants last season.

Our assessment of Carlos hasnt changed, Hoyer said. Pitchings hard to find, theres no question. I think ideally you need to develop your own. But if you look at where pitching comes from, its not always the biggest names that sign at the winter meetings.

There (are) a lot of guys that have impact and you cant just focus on the big guys (because) some of the best seasons could come from guys that arent being discussed in the lobby this week.

Whoever ultimately reports to Arizona will be working with new pitching coach Chris Bosio. Sveum and Bosio go way back. They played high school football against each other in California and became teammates on the Milwaukee Brewers.

Bosio has credibility after pitching 11 seasons in the big leagues. Sveum described Bosio as a baseball rat who doesnt back down from anything.

The question becomes: Will they have to confront Zambrano?

Was Hector Rondon tipping pitches during late-game meltdowns with Cubs?

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USA TODAY

Was Hector Rondon tipping pitches during late-game meltdowns with Cubs?

Hector Rondon may be the most polarizing figure in the Cubs bullpen, if not the entire roster.

When he comes into games right now, a huge population of Cubs fans freak out on Twitter with some combination of annoyance, frustration or WTF reactions.

Look at the responses to this Tweet when he was called upon to pitch the seventh inning of Sunday night's win over the St. Louis Cardinals.

But how is that possible? Exactly a year ago, he was the dominant closer for the best team in baseball with a 1.95 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and 18 saves in 22 chances.

Rondon struggled down the stretch last season after the Cubs sent four players to New York for Aroldis Chapman and Rondon also had a triceps injury that limited him to just 11 games from Aug. 2 on.

In that span, the veteran right-hander struggled to get right with an ugly 12.46 ERA, allowing a .415 average and 1.272 OPS to opposing hitters.

Rondon was better in the postseason (4.50 ERA, 1.50 WHIP), but was pitching in low-leverage spots and was not one of Joe Maddon's trusted options in the World Series.

Could it all be because he was tipping his pitches?

Rondon acknowledges how the triceps issue could've affected his mechanics, but he actually thinks he was telegraphing his pitches too much and that was something he's had to work on correcting over the last year.

"I feel like we fixed the mechanics because we felt like last year, I was tipping some pitches," Rondon said, pointing to the way opposing batters hit him as the main reason for his line of thinking.

"Sometimes you can throw a really nasty pitch and they hit it and there's no reason to think they'll hit that pitch in that location. So you start to think that way. I think that's what it was."

Rondon admitted he feels really good right now, and the radar gun is showing it. He's throwing harder in July than he ever has before and hit 100 mph on the radar gun Sunday night.

Rondon hasn't hit 100 in a couple seasons and the last time he did so, he tipped his cap to his fellow relievers in the Cubs bullpen. But he's not settling just for 100 now.

"My goal is to hit 101 mph this year and then I'll tip my cap to them again," he said, smiling.

Rondon's confidence has also been a big factor ever since the Chapman move and it's something Maddon has been particularly focused on this season.

Rondon was pitching at a high level, then was demoted from closer for Chapman, then bypassed for the closer's role again this offseason as the Cubs traded for Wade Davis. Not to mention the clear lack of confidence Maddon had in Rondon last fall.

So when Maddon turned to Rondon with the bases loaded and nobody out in that disastrous eighth inning Friday afternoon and the end result was cringeworthy, the Cubs manager instantly took the blame for that.

"I immediately went up to him and I told him, 'I put you in a bad spot, brother. Please throw that one away,'" Maddon said. "I wanted him to know, 'Listen, you're throwing the ball way too well to worry about that moment.'"

With a two-run lead in the seventh inning of the rubber game against the Cardinals Sunday night, Maddon again called on Rondon and despite a walk and an infield hit, Rondon escaped the inning unscatched for his career-high eighth hold.

"He came out and I got right in his face in that moment and said, 'Man, that is IT. Now I just want you to focus on making pitches and believe that you're gonna make the pitch that you want to make,'" Maddon said. "His stuff [Sunday] was as good as I've ever seen it. Ever.

"You stand [in the dugout] that close to the hitter, you can really see that jump at home plate with guys with the really elite fastballs. And that's what I saw [Sunday] night. Now throw that elite fastball where you want to and heads up. 'Cause the slider's back."

Even with Friday's performance (four earned runs without recording an out), Rondon is sporting a 3.86 ERA since June 14 with 19 strikeouts in 14 innings.

Take that Friday game out of it and Rondon's numbers look like this for the last five weeks: 1.29 ERA, 1.00 WHIP.

Rondon has also been chatting a lot with Davis, a wise former starter who has morphed into one of the most dominant relievers on the planet for the last half-decade. One of the things the two veterans have been discussing is how to harness the elite-level stuff Rondon possesses.

"It's a good relationship and I'm glad to hear that specifically because that's exactly what Ronnie needs to do — go out there with a plan, as opposed to just going out there, winding up and throwing a pitch and hoping it doesn't get hit," Maddon said.

"[He needs to be focused on hitting spots.] 'I want it there. I want it there.' When he does that, heads up, because it's gonna be lights out."

Willson Contreras is playing his butt off right now for first-place Cubs

Willson Contreras is playing his butt off right now for first-place Cubs

This really is becoming Willson Contreras' team.

The dude is absolutely on fire right now and has almost singlehandedly lifted the Cubs back into first place.

Since the All-Star Break, Contreras has crushed four homers and three doubles while driving in 11 runs in just eight games. 

The Cubs have won seven of those games, including Sunday night when Contreras' two-run shot in the sixth inning turned out to be the game-winner that pushed the Cubs into a first-place tie with the Milwaukee Brewers. (The Cubs also won the only game Contreras hasn't started since the Break.)

In the span of nine games, the Cubs have already erased the 5.5 game deficit they had in the National League Central entering the midseason break.

"He's just playing his butt off, literally, right now," Joe Maddon said. "Everything he's doing is pretty darn good. He plays with enthusiasm, also. You gotta feel that in the stands.

"There's some times he might get over-enthusiastic. I prefer toning people down as opposed to pumping them up all the time. He's doing everything. He's hitting fourth, he's catching, he's handling a really good pitching staff, he's throwing people out, he's blocking the ball really well and he's hitting homers, so God bless him."

Contreras' offense has been amazing, but Maddon credits the young catcher's block on a Wade Davis pitch in the dirt last week in Atlanta with helping to save the season. That play helped ensure a victory by not permitting the tying run to score from third base as the Cubs rattled off six straight wins to start the second half of 2017.

It's at the point now where Maddon cannot rationally find ways to get Contreras out of the lineup, even though the veteran manager is a huge proponent of rest and wants nothing more than to keep his players healthy and playing at a high level late in the season and into the playoffs.

Contreras is like the Energizer Bunny out there, hopping all around behind the plate to block balls, throwing guys out, pumping his chest, screaming obscenities at his first base coach after home runs. He even plays long toss (from the warning track in left-centerfield to about the spot the second baseman normally plays) before games with catching coach Mike Borzello.

The 25-year-old just does not turn down for anything when he's at the ballpark.

So does he ever get weary?

"I do get tired, but when I get home," he said. "When I'm here, I'm never tired. This is my job, this is what I love and you're gonna see me like that all throughout my career."

Contreras credits the Cubs coaching staff with helping him make the mental adjustments that has him in the conversation as one of the best catchers in baseball.

"He's growing up," Anthony Rizzo said. "He's really taking control behind the plate, which is nice. His at-bats just keep getting better and better and it's really fun to watch."

Contreras is on pace for 25 homers and 87 RBI, second only to Kansas City's Salvador Perez in both categories among catchers.

"He definitely has the abilities to be one of the elite catchers," Maddon said. "You gotta consider him one of the elite catchers in the National League already. Because he just does everything so well.

"The biggest next hurdle is just — without pulling him in too much — controlling his emotions a tad more without losing that enthusiasm that he has. Really understanding the game and calling the game and working his pitchers. 

"Mike Borzello does a great job with him. He started out this year and wasn't so good — missing his pitches, missing fastballs, fouling stuff off. But he stayed with it and now you see what he's capable of doing. He is really good right now and he's gonna get better."