The Detroit Tigers, absent one Jose Valverde, will have a new closer when the 2013 season begins. Unless Dave Dombrowski simply intends with his recent comments to improve his team’s negotiation standing, a definite possibility, his club plans to let Bruce Rondon try filling that role.
Rondon will turn 22 in December and has yet to log 30 innings above the Single-A level. Therein lies a problem, and the reason many believe Dombrowski postures when he says things like, “There are not many arms like this. He’s a rare talent.”
Still, until the Tigers spend a gross amount of money to add someone like Rafael Soriano, we have to proceed assuming Rondon has the inside track for the job. The question, then, is whether he can handle it.
Detroit signed Rondon in 2008, before he turned 18, and he spent that summer as a starter for their Venezuelan Summer League team. He succeeded in that role to the tune of a 3.58 ERA, but soon transitioned to the bullpen. In 2010, he took his talents stateside and has pitched only out of the bullpen since. That year, between the Gulf Coast League and the Florida State League, he pitched 32.1 innings, recording 17 saves and a 0.84 ERA. He spent a full season in 2011 with the West Michigan Whitecaps at Single-A, throwing 40 innings and racking up 19 saves with a 2.02 ERA. This year, between High-A Lakeland, Double-A Erie, and Triple-A Toledo, he threw 53 innings, collecting another 29 saves with a 1.53 ERA. In 196 career minor league innings, Rondon has 65 saves and a 2.53 ERA. That’s impressive, but that’s it: less than 200 innings pitched.
Of course his limited experience may hurt him, and it’s not encouraging that the “lazy” label has followed him throughout his professional career. But a rapid emergence into the closer role isn’t unprecedented. In 2005, 21-year-old rookie Huston Street saved 23 major league games and posted an ERA of 1.72 over 78.1 innings. He did that having accumulated only 26 minor league innings. Recently, even more teams have begun to utilize younger closers. Neftali Feliz had 40 saves his sophomore year, 2010, at age 22. Craig Kimbrel was 23 last year when he saved 46 games. Drew Storen and Jordan Walden saved 43 and 32 games respectively in 2011, the sophomore year for each at age 23.
Feliz, Kimbrel, Storen, and Walden all have something in common: a lightning fastball. In the rookie season of each, they possessed a fastball averaging between 94.4 and 98.8 mph. Rondon shares that quality of generous velocity; some scouting reports say his fastball sits between 97-99 mph, and he’s been clocked as high as 103. I personally witnessed him whiz a pitch of at least 100 mph behind the back of Will Rhymes during a Mud Hens game in August.
Then again, of the four mentioned above, only one, Kimbrel, struggled with control in the minors as much as Rondon has. Over his career, Rondon has walked 5.1 batters per nine innings, and he walked seven in his eight innings in Toledo this year. Kimbrel found success in the majors despite an even higher minor league walk rate of 5.7 batters per nine, but he’s the exception, not the rule.
Rondon’s regular arsenal also includes a nasty slider which has helped him strike out 9.8 batters per nine in his career. Kimbrel had three above average pitches, however, and made up for his high walk rate with an inhuman minor league ratio of 14.4 strikeouts per nine. Control issues don’t mean as much when you can get that many swings and misses.
If Rondon was getting the kind of results Kimbrel did strikeout-wise, I could live with a few walks. He’s not, so the control problems do concern me greatly. With more time to polish and mature, Rondon absolutely has potential to succeed in the closer role, but throwing him in there now does not seem ideal.
Still, using the rookie would save the Tigers a lot of money on the free agent market—money they could spend on Anibal Sanchez. Is it worth throwing such a questionable young pitcher into a high-pressure role? If Dombrowski is to be believed, we may soon find out.