The Cleveland Indians have found themselves relatively unharmed and unaided by the Rule 5 draft process over the years.
One of the few notable names to go on to success after being selected away from the Indians organization is right-handed reliever Hector Rondon, who was selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 2012 edition of the draft.
The road to becoming a quality Major League reliever 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 and saw plenty of obstacles cross his path on his way to The Show.
Rondon started his pro career in the Dominican Summer League, making 12 starts and 15 total appearances while going 3-3 with a 1.65 ERA in 2005. When he made his first minor league appearances stateside as an 18-year-old the next season, 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 through the minor leagues appeared to be trending in the right direction. 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.
In 2010, 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 the year. 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, and Rondon was a valuable depth piece at Triple-A when the season began.
“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 significant 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.
Rondon went 6-4 with a 1.67 ERA in 72 games in 2015 and saved 30 games in 34 opportunities. He allowed twice as many home runs (just four total for the season) as the previous year, but allowed several fewer runs and ended the season with a 1.00 WHIP. He also appeared in the postseason for the first time, pitching 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 had been able to get the job done for Joe Maddon and the Chicago faithful over the previous several seasons, the club looked to strengthen its bullpen and acquired Aroldis Chapman from the New York Yankees ahead of the trade deadline during the 2016 campaign. Rondon went 2-3 with a 3.53 ERA in 54 games while earning saves in 18 of 23 opportunities. The Cubs used him seven times in the postseason on the way to ending their World Series drought, incidentally enough against the Rondon’s former club.
Chapman headed back to New York via free agency following the season, but the Cubs were again unwilling to put the ball back in the hands of Rondon in the ninth inning in save situations. Instead, management brought in another established closer, picking up Wade Davis from Kansas City in a trade. Rondon served as his setup man for a stretch while doing his heaviest lifting in the seventh and eighth innings, but fell out of favor in the Maddon mix despite posting a career-high 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings. He finished the year with a 4-1 record with a 4.24 ERA , a 1.22 WHIP, and ten holds in 61 appearances, but he also blew three saves.
Rondon logged five years of service in the Windy City, appearing in 296 career games while posting an 18-13 record with a 3.22 ERA and 77 career saves. After putting up a 4.24 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP in 61 games in 2017 while earning $5.8 million in his second year of arbitration, he was non-tendered by the club and later signed a two-year, $8.5 million contract with the Houston Astros. In the first season of the deal, he had an up-and-down season, posting a 2-5 record with 15 saves in 22 chances, working a 3.20 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP in 63 games and 59 innings of work.
The Cubs were able to use Rondon as a late inning reliever for years, but Indians fans can wonder what his presence in the Tribe bullpen might have looked like had his career stayed on course for an actual stop in Cleveland. 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 and significant 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, now with six seasons and 92 saves under his belt.
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