1. Rondon is the ONLY realistic internal option that could close in October
First off, let’s dismiss any fliers on pitchers like Al Alburquerque (who has been inconsistent to start the year and has battled health issues anyway) or Darin Downs as a possibility to close. At this point in time, they don’t merit serious discussion. Sure, maybe they could get by for a few games, just like Phil Coke in last year’s ALCS, but they’re not pitchers you would plan to use for an extended period of time. And in addition, while Jose Valverde is the team’s current closer, it’s safe to say that he’s not a solution for that role for this season – he may hold it for another week, or another month, but he can’t be the guy in October if the Tigers plan to be World Series contenders.
The only two arms currently in the bullpen that have the repertoire to close are Joaquin Benoit and Drew Smyly. Benoit however hasn’t embraced the concept of closing in the past, and seems comfortable (and very effective) in his setup role. Plus, shifting Benoit to closer simply opens up a hole in the 8th inning, so you’re really just robbing Peter to pay Paul and shifting key relief innings around. As for Smyly, thus far the Tigers have yet to embrace consistently using him in short stints for high leverage situations, likely because they want to keep him more stretched out in the event he’s needed in the rotation. Perhaps they’ll change their mind on this, but as of now, neither appears fit to close.
That means if the Tigers aren’t going outside the organization, and need a closer, their best bet is Bruce Rondon.
2. Rondon has the stuff to be a big league closer
There’s a reason the Tigers were hopeful they could thrust the 22-year old with limited upper level minor league experience directly into a high leverage bullpen role in Detroit. Everyone has heard about his blazing fastball that sits in the high-90’s and has topped out at 102, but at times the pitch has showed excellent movement with late life as well.
In addition, he has both a changeup and a slider at his disposal, giving him a potential three pitch arsenal that make the heavy fastball deadly. When the slider is on, it’s a quality pitch, and the changeup can be average, plenty good enough again to complement the fastball. It’s the sort of repertoire that a closer needs to have to be a shutdown reliever.
3. There have been persistent concerns about his attitude and work ethic
While it’s nice to picture every prospect as a hard-working kid that will do whatever it takes to reach the big leagues, that’s just not always the case. For Rondon, his attitude and conditioning issues date back to 2009, when the Tigers sent him back to Venezuela a few months after bringing him stateside, because he wasn’t taking the game or his work seriously enough. In addition, there have been times when it seemed like Rondon was more interested in watching the radar gun and getting “oohs” and “aahs” out of the crowd than just getting batters out.
These are rather basic maturation issues that many players go through, but it’s a process that doesn’t happen overnight, and the transition can sometimes impact a player on and off the field.
4. Rondon doesn’t need great command to close
Sometimes people misunderstand the difference between a pitcher controlling his pitches and a pitcher commanding his pitches. The notion of control is to simply be able to have a general idea of where the pitch is going (i.e. a fastball in the strike zone or a changeup in the dirt), while command is about being able to locate the pitch exactly where you want it (i.e. a fastball on the outside edge of the zone).
Rondon doesn’t need to command his pitches to be effective. The difference between a 100 MPH fastball and a 90 MPH fastball is great enough that the added velocity gives pitchers margin for error (it’s why the Tigers always love their high velocity arms). So long as he can control the pitch (which at times, he hasn’t), and have a passable secondary pitch, he can be effective in Detroit.
5. We don’t know if Rondon is ready for the big leagues, but we’ll never know as long as he’s in Toledo
Rondon is posting sparkling numbers for the Mud Hens, with an ERA right around one, more than 12 strikeouts per nine innings, and a batting average against of only .141. The problem is, as alluded to above, Rondon’s velocity in this case makes it impossible to know whether or not he’s ready to face big league competition, because the stuff is just too good for Triple-A.
Where Rondon needs to make improvements are on finer aspects of pitching. He needs more consistency with his slider. He needs to regain the movement on his fastball. He needs to be able to hold runners, at least better than he has been. The problem is that against Triple-A hitters, when he needs a strike, he just fires a triple digit fastball. Doesn’t matter whether or not it’s well located – most hitters at that level simply can’t catch up to a pitch like that, it’s why they’re in Triple-A and not in the big leagues. Sure, there are a few exceptions, but for the most part, he’s just too good for the level. And so long as he’s not being challenged, it’s unlikely he’ll make the improvements needed.
So, the only way to find out if he can get big league hitters out consistently in 2013 is to bring him back up to Detroit, put him out there, and see what happens. It’s a difficult proposition for any manager to swallow, when he’s tasked with winning a World Series – you can’t give away innings to a guy just to see what happens – that’s what loses you games.
But, if he’s your only potential option, and the alternative is paying an extraordinary price on the open market to acquire someone, it’s a tough stance to not even try and see what happens.