The Tigers began the year with a closer-by-committee approach, but that quickly went by the wayside. Since the season began a few weeks back, Detroit has signed former closer Jose Valverde to a minor-league deal, distributed saves among three pitchers, and come to the conclusion that the best of them, Joaquin Benoit, probably should be the actual Closer with a capital C. Things are going to change even further now that Octavio Dotel is on the disabled list and relief prospect Bruce Rondon is in the bigs in his place.
Rondon was the presumed closer heading into the year, but a tough spring messed with those plans, and he was optioned to Triple-A Toledo to begin the season. He's found himself there, as much as one can find themselves in seven innings of minor-league relief work, anyway: he's struck out nine batters, walked just a pair, and has yet to allow a run in his seven appearances. That stands in stark contrast to his spring, in which he walked nine in over 12 innings while posting a 5.84 ERA.
In reality, it's all small samples, and what we've seen is the highs and lows of one Bruce Rondon. He might throw over 100 miles per hour, but he doesn't always know where it's going. That problem not only has to do with whether the pitch might go in the strike zone or out of it, but also whether it's going to be a quality strike or not. His 2012 walk rate of 4.4 per nine was his best since he was a 17-year-old in Rookie ball, and while he was able to avoid a disaster walk rate like he featured in 2011, it's not as if his control was any good last year -- just better.
So, in the spring, you saw the Rondon who can throw bullets, but not always accurate ones. To start the year, you have seen the Rondon who can get the job done easily, putting away hitters with his three-pitch repertoire. The answer as to what he'll do in the majors isn't so much in between those events, as it is both of those things. There were will be outings where his control is a mess and he drives Tigers' fans insane, and there will also be outings where you can't believe he ever has trouble recording outs. Such is the life of a closer with control problems.
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The good news is that if Rondon can work his way into the closer role instead of being a setup guy with control issues, the Tigers will likely be better off for it. Joaquin Benoit can resume setup work, and pitch wherever a fire needs to be put out in the later innings. Phil Coke and Drew Smyly can throw fewer high-leverage frames, but still do their thing bridging the starters in an impressive rotation with the back-end of the bullpen that, in theory, should be better now. When Dotel returns, if Rondon has pitched well, then they'll have the benefit of both of these strikeout monsters around, as well as Al Alburquerque and his career 13.8 strikeouts per nine.
It could turn out to be a real good looking bullpen, and if the Tigers can get Rondon those easy two- and three-run leads to protect, excess walks might not even be a problem or him in the closer role. Remember, before Carlos Marmol became a huge problem in his late 20s, he was one of the game's most dominating relievers, posting a 176 ERA+ from 2007 through 2010. The Tigers would gladly take even a fraction of that success today were Rondon to hold off succumbing to control issues completely for a few years, as Marmol did. Assuming Rondon ends up as a closer this year, anyway.
If he doesn't take a hold on that role in a few weeks, it's likely because that half-month in Triple-A didn't heal what ailed him, and he'll be back to work on his mechanics in games that won't hurt the Tigers in the standings. This is a distinct possibility, given the up-and-down nature of a reliever with control issues, and it's how Rondon ended up in Toledo to begin with. Whether his mechanics can be fixed easily is another question entirely, though: Baseball America seems to think his control and command will always be issues, just because the 6-foot-3 reliever weighs far more than his listed weight of 255. (If you think Rondon is just being picked on, here's your reminder that the 6-foot-7 CC Sabathia is only listed at 290, and that Dustin Pedroia is supposedly 5-foot-8.) Being large is not helpful -- whether it's tall or wide -- when it comes to repeating mechanics, and unless Rondon figures out a way around it, then it will be a problem.
This isn't a call for Rondon to go on a diet or anything like that. It's just to put expectations where they belong in regards to what he can do. He will likely be a shutdown reliever, but he's just as likely struggle with finding the strike zone -- it could vary from day-to-day, inning-to-inning, or batter-to-batter. We, and the Tigers, will just have to see if he can produce more of the good than the bad with that promising arm of his.