Bruce Rondon Key To Detroit Tigers Bullpen

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Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Is he Bruce Almighty or Run-Down Rondon?

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The answer to that question will largely determine the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen fortunes this year, as it has in the past two.

Of course I speak of Bruce Rondon, the missile-launching right hander whose tantalizing potential has so far out-stripped his on-the-field production.

The source of this discrepancy has not been the quality of his offerings, but his fitness for duty.

When healthy, the corpulent 24 year-old sports an electric four-seam fastball which regularly travels into triple digit territory, a pitch he uses about two thirds of the time.

He supplements that heater with a tight 88 mph slider (thrown a quarter of the time) and an occasional change-up (12%).

With stuff of that magnitude, precise location becomes secondary to simply getting the ball over the plate–which is fortuitous, because accuracy has never been Rondon’s forte. As a young hurler in the low minors, for example, he averaged as high as 7.7 walks per nine innings.

That number declined as Rondon gained professional experience, though, and settled in at an acceptable 3.9 in 2012, his last full year in the minors.

In 53 innings that year Rondon had a sterling 1.53 ERA, a 1.09 WHIP, and 66 strikeouts.

Going into 2013, Rondon was declared the Tiger closer at the tender age of 22. Unfortunately he got hit hard and had control problems in spring training, and was ultimately sent  to AAA Toledo to begin the season.

He went on to dominate International League competition in the first half of the season (ERA-1.52; WHIP-0.91; SO’s/9-12.1), and spent the balance of 2013 with the Tigers. Though he had a mediocre July with an ERA of 4.50, he finally flashed his talent down the stretch in August.

In 12 innings that month Rondon had an ERA of 1.50, a batting average against of .233,  and a WHIP of 1.25. He also struck out twelve batters while walking five.

It appeared at that stage the big man had finally put it together at the big league level and would solidify the Tiger bullpen deep into the postseason.

But like most phenomena associated with the Tiger pen lately, it was not to be.

Rondon tweaked his right elbow early in September, sat three weeks, then re-injured it when he returned for one outing late in the month.

At that point he was shut down for the duration of the season.

The Tigers didn’t know it at the time, but Rondon’s subsequent unavailability during the playoffs would haunt them, particularly during that nightmarish game two of the ALCS  in Boston, when David Ortiz beat them with his fateful grand slam home run (in a memorable tête-à-tête earlier in September, Rondon had fanned Ortiz on a 102 mph fastball).

Things got even worse for Rondon last spring when he completely blew out his elbow and had to undergo Tommy John surgery. The injury cost him the season and casts  doubt on his professional future, though many in his position have completely recovered from the procedure.

For his part, Rondon is currently working out in Florida and should be ready for spring training. Expect him to begin slowly, as general manager Dave Dombrowski has rightly warned him off the high octane fastballs that are his stock in trade.

Whether he’ll go north with the team when it breaks camp depends on how his arm behaves in March. The Tigers might be well advised to leave Rondon in Lakeland for an extended period to continue his recovery, sparing his precious right arm from the ravages of a Michigan spring.

The Bottom Line

In Dombrowski-speak–which has been adopted as the Tigers’ official party line this winter–building an effective bullpen seems to be based on probability theory: throw enough arms at the problem and some will eventually work out.

Considering the fluctuating year-to-year performance among relievers, he has suggested, it’s wise not to overspend in such a treacherous environment.

So as the Tigers segue into spring training, Andrew Miller will be modeling Yankee pinstripes.

Meanwhile, the list of non-core bullpen candidates is at once both extensive and inexpensive.

Who knows? If things break just right, maybe this Tiger bullpen could eventually develop into a team strength.

Maybe.

But last year, things did not exactly break just right.

Instead, it was a classic illustration of what happens when things go very wrong.

In the off-season the Tigers signed Joe Nathan, the best available closer on the market. Though the move was universally acclaimed, it backfired when Nathan was ineffective for most of the year.

Likewise, Dombrowski took a flyer on Joba Chamberlain. Though the ex-Yankee pitched well in the season’s first half, he became hittable down the stretch and was implicated in the Great Bullpen Blow-Up of October, which swiftly blasted the team out of the playoffs.

A similar misfortune befell Joakim Soria, an accomplished reliever who struggled with injury and performance issues immediately after landing in Detroit in July.

Other names could easily be added to this trail of tears, but collectively the bullpen woes resulted from a “perfect storm” of random events, which were set in motion with Rondon’s injury in March.

While this illuminates the state of last year’s bullpen failures, it falls short of explaining the longer term shortcomings of the bullpens assembled during the Dombrowski era.

Fair or not, their perennial inadequacy will form a portion of Dombrowski’s legacy when he leaves the franchise.

As for now, it’s 2015–and the club is eager to put its bullpen misery behind it.

But they remain in dire need of a new enforcer, a fearless lion-tamer of sorts, an absolute demon with a horsehide in his palm.

Someone like, well, the “almighty” version of Bruce Rondon.

Next: V-Mart rebound, Spring Training battles, more Tigers in the booth

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