Tale of three Cubs: Rondon, Watkins, Boscan
One a likely member of '14 squad; one has a shot; one feels lucky just to be in Majors
CHICAGO -- One was a Rule 5 Draft pick who has evolved into a candidate the be the Cubs' setup man next year. Another didn't get many big league at-bats, but considers this season to have been one of his best. And another feels blessed just to still be in baseball.
This tale of three Cubs is about how the 2013 season impacted Hector Rondon, Logan Watkins and J.C. Boscan.
Rondon: The Rule 5 Draft pick turned potential setup man
The Cubs were careful with last year's Rule 5 Draft pick, Lendy Castillo, 24. He had not pitched higher than Class A when selected and obviously needed more development time. Rondon, 25, the Cubs' Rule 5 Draft pick this season, already had 105 Minor League games to his credit over seven seasons, but his career had been slowed because of injuries.
"As the season has progressed, he's gotten better and better," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said of Rondon. "He's obviously turned himself into a power arm. His last part of development is developing his slider. His strikes are getting better -- the whole package. You see the confidence in him.
"He's not the Rule 5 guy any more," Sveum said. "He's a guy you feel comfortable using. He's got a little more of an attitude now. He's a guy coming into Spring Training [next year] with that kind of power arm who you have to take a serious, serious look at."
In his last seven outings, Rondon has given up one hit and no runs over seven innings while striking out six. The Venezuelan right-hander has gotten good advice from veteran Carlos Villanueva and bullpen coach Lester Strode. This year, Rondon and lefty James Russell are the only relievers that have remained in the Cubs' bullpen through the entire season.
"I've figured out how to make better pitches, how to make good location, and I think that's the key the last weeks," Rondon said. "For me, my first year here, I learned a lot and I want to keep going."
"I told him the other day to disregard his earned run average," Sveum said. "I'm as proud of him as anybody on the team this year the way he's handled everything -- [pitching] back to back days; 40-pitch, two-inning outings. He's responded really well."
Castillo split the 2013 season between Class A Kane County and Class A Advanced Daytona. Rondon is a legitimate candidate for the Cubs' 2014 bullpen.
Watkins: The prospect with a chance at making '14 roster
Watkins has checked the Cubs' lineup nearly every day to see if he's starting since he was called up from Triple-A Iowa on Aug. 4.
"If a lefty is throwing, obviously, I don't even look," Watkins said. "I know I'm here for the experience, and I'm trying to learn as much as I can."
A 21st-round pick in 2008, Watkins was batting .243 at Iowa when he got promoted. He's appeared in 25 of the 49 games the Cubs have played since then, making four starts at second base. As a pinch-hitter, Watkins is 0-for-12 with two walks and seven strikeouts. Unfortunately, he's often had to face some of the tougher right-handed pitchers.
"When I do pinch-hit, and I do get my opportunities, I'm trying to stay as ready as I possibly can," Watkins said.
Being in the big leagues has been exactly what Watkins, 24, expected, including the rookie dress-up day. He's watched Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney and worked with the coaches on infield drills. Some might say Watkins has lost time, as he's spent more days on the bench than in games. He doesn't see it that way.
"I was down there and got 500 or so plate appearances, so I definitely got enough at-bats this season," Watkins said. "There was a chance to come up here, and I would rather be up here than [in the Minors]. Playing time would be great, but this whole time is learning and watching."
Watkins did play in the Arizona Fall League last year and reported early to Spring Training. During the rookie development program in January, Sveum discovered Watkins' limited food experiences -- the Wichita, Kan., native had never eaten apple pie or drank chocolate milk. Part of pre-workout meetings in Spring Training included Watkins taste-testing new foods. The infielder survived everything, including guacamole.
"Thankfully, he's left me alone with the food," Watkins said. "Luckily, they have enough options here."
As for next season, Watkins could be an extra infielder on the Cubs.
"I feel the more I'm here, the more they see me work, the more they see me play, the more confidence they'll have in putting me in there," he said. "I'm just trying to do the same thing every day and learn what to do and what not to do, so when I do get a chance to be here regularly, I know what I'm doing."
Boscan: The veteran who's grateful to be in Majors
Neither Rondon nor Watkins had to wait as long as Boscan to get to the big leagues. The catcher was signed out of high school by the Braves in 1996. This year was his 17th season in the Minors, and he has made five big league starts since 2010. Talk about perseverance.
Boscan, 33, started Wednesday in the Cubs' home finale, a 4-2 win over the Pirates, and went 0-for-3, but more important was how the pitchers performed. Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio had lobbied for Boscan. The catcher is a survivor.
"He's that guy who every organization needs to develop your starting pitching and your pitchers in general," Bosio said. "If you don't have good catching, it doesn't matter what kind of arms you have. Bosky has that unique ability to take a pitcher's talents and find ways to get them through games, even in the hard times. It's easy to catch guys when they have good stuff -- [catchers Dioner Navarro] and [Welington Castillo] could go out there and catch them with a pair of pliers, then. Most of the time, pitchers are going to need help to get through a game."
When the regular season ends Sunday, Boscan will return to Venezuela. In a few weeks, he'll be the starting catcher in the Venezuelan Winter League.
"Every baseball player's life is different," Boscan said. "Mine, it took me a while to get to the big leagues. I always thank the Lord for giving me the opportunity for at least having a day in the big leagues. Every day, even when I'm in the Minor Leagues, I'm working harder and harder, because it's telling me, 'You have to work harder so you can go back.'"
Boscan calls the pitchers his "kids" and takes pride when they get to the Majors. He advises them on how to act professionally, on and off the field. Some day, Boscan may coach, but he's not ready to stop playing yet.
"Since I've been a kid, my dream was always to be a baseball player," Boscan said. "I love it. I love to play this game. I want to work hard every game to stay in it as long as I can, because this is my life. This is what I want to do."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.