March 26, 2013; Lakeland, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Bruce Rondon (43) throws a pitch during the fifth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
I think we might be looking at the Bruce Rondon situation backwards. One line of thought that’s out there – a thought that’s perpetuated by national media types such as Danny Knobler – is that the Tigers charged into the offseason and spring “needing” a closer while blindly hoping that Bruce Rondon could do the job. He couldn’t and now the Tigers are facing the season without a closer and without a good option.
That might not be a completely wrong way to look at the situation, but I don’t think it’s the right way to look at the situation either. It’s not like Dave Dombrowksi et al. were 100% (or even probably 70%) confident that Rondon could do the job. He didn’t have much experience even in the high minors, and he had given indication all spring that his wildness would be too much to overcome right away. No one in the Tigers’ organization is surprised or shocked or caught unaware by Rondon’s need for more time in the minor leagues.
Rondon was never so much “Plan A” as he was A plan for how the closer role could be filled. They came into the offseason without much interest in high-dollar relievers and had stated their confidence in their internal “by committee” options.
So here was the situation they were presented with. They were comfortable with the status quo of the bullpen. They had a potentially special late-inning arm that appears to be on the verge of major league readiness.
If Rondon came to spring and impressed the pants off of everyone, then cool. He could be allowed to lock down the ninth inning spot while making the bullpen strong. If he wasn’t ready, then cool. He could be allowed to go to the minor leagues while the bullpen remains constructed in a way that you’re comfortable with. You win if he makes it, but you don’t lose if he doesn’t.
It seems that many (fans of the Tigers and nationally) assumed Rondon was being anointed as the closer before either Dombrowski or Leyland said anything of the sort. Things didn’t work out for Rondon right now, but that doesn’t automatically mean the Tigers are screwed. They have plenty of good arms out in the bullpen as it is and, if employed correctly, Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, Al Alburquerque, Brayan Villarreal, Drew Smyly, and Darin Downs could make one heckuva bullpen.
It might be true that they don’t have a good pure closer option in the group – though I’d argue Benoit and Alburquerque could fit that bill – but they do have a plethora of mix-and-match guys that could make for a killer late inning combination. I would be nervous about none of these guys in a high-leverage situation (so long platoon matchups were being seen to).
It seems like the Tigers have left themselves without a solid “Plan B” because we’re so used to seeing every team name a primary closer, and setup men, but stat heads have long been crying for bullpen usage to be determined by situation and leverage. This is the Tigers’ opportunity to do just that.