Detroit Tigers Rondon-Another Year, Another Disappointment


Like the new Coke, the Ford Edsel and X-Ray vision glasses, some products just don’t live up to the advance hype.

Such has been the case so far with Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Bruce Rondon.

Rondon grew up in Venezuela and signed with the Tigers at the age of 16.

Once he became Tiger property, Rondon toiled in obscurity–first in the Venezuelan Summer League, and then upward and onward to the States to climb the ladder within the Tiger minor league system.

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But a triple digit fastball tends to get people’s attention, and as Rondon experienced success in the minors he gradually assumed a higher profile within the Tiger prospect hierarchy.

Along with that notoriety came increased expectations.

So how have things worked out vis-a-vis those expectations for the burly right hander since his major league debut in 2013?

To address that question, let’s take a snapshot of each year of Rondon’s major league career.


The expectation

By the time the Tigers went to the World Series in 2012, Jose Valverde had washed out and Phil Coke–yes, Phil Coke!–was the team’s closer.

Needless to say that was subject to change, and during the offseason general manager Dave Dombrowski announced Rondon would be the team’s new closer. He was coming off a strong season where he had a combined ERA of 1.53 at three minor league stops, and of course was featuring that blazing four-seamer.

The result

Not so good, at least out of the gate.

In spring training the team’s newly anointed closer had trouble finding the plate and when he did, they hit it. Rondon’s line was 12 innings pitched, nine walks, 17 hits, an ERA of 5.84, and a WHIP of 2.11.

Not exactly the stuff of which closers are made.

So Rondon failed to make the Opening Day roster and instead trudged off to Toledo to refine his craft.

Aside from three pedestrian outings for the big club in late April-early May (his major league debut), Rondon remained in Toledo until late June, when he was again recalled by the Tigers. Though July did not go well he got it together in August, posting a crisp 1.50 ERA in 12 appearances.

Had the big guy finally put it together?

Unfortunately, Rondon tweaked his elbow in early September and went on the disabled list. In the first and only outing upon his return in late September, he re-aggravated the elbow and was wisely shut down for the season.

On their way to the postseason, the Tigers would be left to face the likes of the Boston Red Sox and David Ortiz without their high octane right hander.

Sorry to evoke those long repressed memories, folks, but I think we all remember how that turned out.


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The expectation

Having signed the best available closer (Joe Nathan) during the offseason and with Rondon on the mend, the Tigers seemed to be set (at least from the right side) in the late innings.

The result

Once again fate intervened.

All went extremely well for Rondon for most of spring training (7 appearances, 1.29 ERA, 0.91 WHIP) until he blew out his elbow in late March.

Tommy John surgery quickly followed, and 2014 became the year that never was for Rondon.

Though the Tigers qualified for the playoffs, fans were once again left to wonder what might have been, as the the Baltimore Orioles racked the Rondon-less bullpen on their way to a three-game sweep of the ALDS.


The expectation

Working on a surprisingly aggressive physical recovery plan, Rondon began throwing in February and arrived in Lakeland ready to go. With the Tiger bullpen talent again a bit wispy, he was expected to play a prominent late-inning role.

The result

Not unlike 2013, Rondon had an unremarkable spring training, with a 4.91 ERA and a 1.64 WHIP. Coming off his surgery the Tigers used him conservatively, allotting him only seven innings of work.

Nonetheless Rondon developed biceps tendinitis as the team was about to head north, and his name was yet again appended to the DL.

He finally emerged from the DL in late May and started a rehab stint in Toledo, which was expected to last about two weeks.

But Rondon had trouble finding his rhythm, and the Tigers correctly determined he was better served working through his hiccups in Toledo than at the big league level.

Though his AAA stats were worrisome (7.11 ERA, 1.74 WHIP), Rondon was finally recalled by the Tigers in late June after spending more than a month at Toledo.

To the Tigers’ chagrin, those numbers have worsened since his return to Detroit. In 15 games he’s carved out an ERA of 8.25, accompanied by a 1.74 WHIP.

The Bottom Line

In the last decade the make-up of major league bullpens has changed. Many teams now employ a pitcher who routinely reaches the upper 90’s, while others have collected an array of such flame-throwers.

Aside from the meteoric Joel “Zoom Zoom” Zumaya in 2006, the Detroit Tigers have conspicuously lacked such late-inning assassins, which may in part explain the disappointing bullpens they’ve assembled over the past several years.

As Bruce Rondon entered the picture, at long last Tiger fans could point to him as The Answer.

At least that was the theory.

But as often happens, in this case theory and reality have not been on speaking terms.

Because with the exception of one tantalizing month in August, 2013, Rondon has either been on the disabled list or pitched poorly when called upon.

Still only 24 years old, he remains achingly long on potential but short on performance.

Will he ever harness the lightning in a bottle that resides in his right arm while avoiding the dreaded disabled list, with which he is all too familiar?

Or, more bluntly stated, will Bruce Rondon ever live up to the lofty expectations placed upon him?

It’s an open question.

The answer to which is known only to the baseball gods, who–accountable to no one–will get around to his case on their usual terms.

Which, as always, is when they damn well please.

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