Heading into 2013 Spring Training, the Detroit Tigers seemed content to rely on an unproven commodity in Bruce Rondon as their anointed closer. I felt this was a mistake reminiscent of another recent Tigers’ misstep.
During the offseason following the 2009 season, the Tigers decided to part ways with 2006 ALCS MVP Placido Polanco, leaving a yawning hole at second base. The Tigers felt that prized prospect Scott Sizemore would finally give them a homegrown second-sacker for the first time since Lou Whitaker broke in with the club in the late seventies. It only took a couple months for Sizemore to lose his job at second, and he was traded out of the organization the following season.
Rondon didn’t even win the job that so many in the Tigers’ organization wanted him to win, and started 2013 in Toledo. He bounced up and down from the minors, eventually settling in as a middle relief option for Jim Leyland in May, where he was quite productive until injuries ended his season early. This year, with the acquisition of Joe Nathan, and Joaquin Benoit most likely on the move to close elsewhere, Rondon may be the anointed set-up man.
While I am usually a fan of an anointed heir apparent with limited sample size, I am a little more comfortable with handing Bruce a role this season.
From Aug. 4 to Sept. 24, Rondon allowed two runs in 15 appearances. Unfortunately, elbow soreness cost Rondon a shot at the postseason. The way he was throwing toward the end of the season could have helped the Tigers avoid the bullpen struggles that ultimately cost them a return to the World Series
Closing at the big league level is entirely different than at Erie or Toledo. One small mistake can lose a game, and young pitchers are often aware of this. After a brief stint as a starter, Mariano Rivera began his storied career as a set-up man. I believe this is the best way to groom a future closer to get him used to the pressure, which isn’t as great as it is in the ninth inning, but closely simulates it.
Of course I am not saying Rondon will be as great as Rivera, however remember Mariano served as a set-up man to a very good closer in the 1990’s, John Wetteland. Rondon can follow a similar path by closing for Nathan and will hopefully be ready to close when Nathan’s contract is up.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some concerns with Rondon. Will he be as effective as he was at the end of the season? Will the lack of work after September cause another rusty Spring Training and start to the season? Will that injury continue to hamper him into next season?
Also, with Detroit’s middle relief still in disarray after the departure of Doug Fister and move of Drew Smyly to the starting rotation, will there be reliable options to even get the ball to Rondon and Nathan with the lead?
Time will tell, but this is the right move for the Tigers now and into the future.