The Cleveland Indians have found themselves relatively unharmed and unaided by the Rule 5 draft process that has operated in some form for nearly the entirety of the organization’s existence.
One of the few notable names to go on to success after being selected is right-handed reliever Hector Rondon, who spent the majority of the 2015 season working as the closer for the Chicago Cubs.
The path to Major League closer was no easy one for Rondon, who was signed as an amateur free agent by the Indians in 2004 out of Venezuela. He was just 16 years old at the time.
Rondon started in the Dominican Summer League, making 12 starts and 15 total appearances, going 3-3 with a 1.65 ERA in 2005.
When he made his first minor league appearances as an 18-year-old in 2006, he was 3-4 with a 5.13 ERA in eleven games for the Gulf Coast League Indians. He was a league leader in all the wrong ways on the mound, giving up league-highs in hits, runs, and home runs allowed.
Rondon went 7-10 with a 4.37 ERA for Lake County in 2007. He worked in part of a special game that season, throwing six hitless innings, striking out five and walking two, and reliever Neil Wagner completed the no-hitter over the Delmarva Shorebirds. His efforts over the course of the year earned him a selection to the 2007 South Atlantic League All-Star Game.
In 2008, his progression was looking good. He made 27 starts for High-A Kinston, going 11-6 with a 3.60 ERA. His walk rate had jumped a little, but his strikeout total took a healthy jump of its own. He was selected to participate in the Futures Game, the lone representative for the Tribe that season, and landed as the league’s ninth-best prospect according to Baseball America.
He went 11-10 in 2009, split between Akron (Double-A) and Columbus (Triple-A), and won the club’s Bob Feller Award as the organization’s best minor league pitcher. He pitched in winter ball for the first time that offseason, making six starts and winning a pair of games for Caracas.
The following season is where Rondon’s career with the Indians derailed a bit. He started the season in Columbus but went just 1-3 with an 8.53 ERA before he was shelved with elbow soreness in the middle of May. He headed to Arizona for rehab work, but the pain worsened. Tommy John surgery followed in late August, wiping away the rest of 2010. He was one of numerous significant casualties for the Indians organization that season, as they had also lost Grady Sizemore, Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Travis Hafner, and Carlos Santana for large chunks of the season with serious injuries.
“Hector was one of the players that if the injury didn’t happen and he had developed that we likely would have taken a look at in September,” then Cleveland manager Manny Acta said after the announcement of Rondon’s surgery with the renowned Dr. James Andrews.
Already set to miss the majority of 2011, Rondon suffered another setback in his comeback attempt. He appeared in two games for the Mahoning Valley Scrappers to conclude the 2011 season and threw in five games in the Venezuelan Winter League, but a screw in place as part of the Tommy John procedure came off the bone. The fractured elbow put him back under the knife for a second major elbow surgery in December of 2011.
At the time, he was told that he might have just a 20 percent chance of pitching again.
He returned late in 2012, making two starts for the Indians in the Arizona League and pitching twice in relief in Akron before heading off for another season of winter ball. There, he was pitching regularly every few days and was holding up to the workload, able to reach the upper 90’s with his fastball once again.
Despite very little playing time over the previous three seasons in the minors, the Chicago Cubs saw enough potential in him to select him with the second overall pick in the Rule 5 draft. The Indians would also lose left-handed starter T.J. McFarland to the Baltimore Orioles and would select first baseman Chris McGuiness from the Texas Rangers.
“If you go back and look, he was a really good prospect with the Indians,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer shared following the draft. “He’s had elbow problems. He’s throwing the ball really, really well. He has a great arm and we feel like we can capitalize on the fact that’s he’s healthy now and throwing the ball well.”
Even though Rondon had last pitched at the Triple-A level in 2010, the Cubs stashed him in their bullpen in 2013, where he went 2-1 in 45 relief appearances with a 4.77 ERA.
Now in full control of his rights after fulfilling the requirements of his Rule 5 status, Rondon remained in the Cubs’ bullpen for the 2014 season. He got regular work and was steady for the team, posting a 4-4 record with a 2.42 ERA in 64 appearances. He also spent time as the team’s closer, saving 29 games in 33 opportunities. He averaged just under a strikeout per inning pitched and had a 1.06 WHIP for the season.
Last season, he went 6-4 with a 1.67 ERA in 72 games. He saved 30 games in 34 opportunities. He allowed twice as many home runs (just four total for the season) compared to the previous year, but allowed several fewer runs and ended the season with a 1.00 WHIP. He also appeared in the postseason in five games.
His season as a whole was impressive, marred primarily by a rough patch in May when he allowed two of his four blown saves for the season in a span of two weeks. He ended the year with 51 strikeouts over his final 51 innings and a near-perfect ERA of 0.88 in that span.
While he has been able to get the job done for Joe Maddon and the Chicago faithful over the last several seasons, the club is still said to be actively seeking a more established closer for the coming season. Rondon, who is still just 27 years old, is in his first season of arbitration eligibility and was one of eight Cubs tendered a contract offer last week before the deadline. He is still under their control through the end of the 2018 season.
The Cubs may see Rondon in better use as a setup man, but Indians fans can wonder what his presence in the Cleveland bullpen would have looked like had his career stayed on course. For what it is worth, the team was unwilling to commit a 40-man roster spot while on the verge of contention to a pitcher who had been saddled with a long return from multiple elbow surgeries.
Meanwhile, the Cubs took a flyer on Rondon that was easier to commit to while in rebuilding mode and transitioned him from a prospective starter to a successful major league reliever.
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer