Thus far, contrary to what Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski might say, the Bruce Rondon experiment at closer hasn’t gone as well as expected. In fact, the gamble has looked like a complete and unnecessary debacle, capable of doing more harm than intended in several ways if it should continue.
Early in spring training, Rondon, the young fireball pitcher who was given the keys to the ninth inning for team expected to contend for a World Series title, has been beyond erratic. Walks have been the major problem, and when Rondon has managed to find home plate, hitters have quickly tattooed his pitches. That’s all despite his powerful fastball and wicked change up, which apparently need just a bit more fine tuning.
This spring, it’s looking like a major case of too much too soon for an extremely talented rookie with plenty to learn. The Tigers don’t have to rush Rondon at all considering his age (25) and experience level (only nine games at the Triple A level). Sometimes, teams have to push their young talent because of roster necessity. In Detroit, that’s not the case right now, nor has it ever been lately.
That’s why I’ve argued since day one this offseason that the team has long needed some type of insurance policy. After Jose Valverde exited stage left, Detroit’s brass went all in on Rondon, perhaps trying to fill him with some spring confidence. It hasn’t worked. Now, rumors say the Tigers could finally be coming around to the idea of adding a veteran closer, despite Dombrowski and Leyland’s constant public dismissals.
Be it for Carlos Marmol of the Chicago Cubs, Andrew Bailey of the Boston Red Sox or a combination of players the Washington Nationals feature in Drew Storen or Tyler Clippard (all of which were alluded to by Danny Knobler) the team had better make a move and embrace it. If not, things will get ugly in Detroit’s often wicked court of public opinion for Rondon if he struggles, and subsequently, Leyland and Dombrowski as well. Todd Jones, Fernando Rodney and Valverde were raked over the coals in the city for their various problems, regardless if they were at complete fault. A rookie simply shouldn’t be given the depth of that heat and pressure so early in his career if it doesn’t have to happen.
If Rondon is thrust into the role and fails during the season, his career could be prematurely ruined and his growth severely stunted if not damaged. Consider what happened to Franklin German, another giant relief pitcher with a live arm the Tigers tried to bring along too quickly. Circumstance dictated the team had to rush him in 2002, German quickly struggled in his role and was never the same from that point on, quickly flaming out in baseball. He never had any help to aid in his development nor time to find himself, and confidence is the most important thing a reliever can possess.
With someone capable to bridge the gap, the team can continue to season Rondon for the position and let him find his way. This spring should simply be the “trial by fire” stage of his development. Rondon shouldn’t be replaced at all; instead, the team should ready him for the demands of the hardest position in baseball. Rookie closers typically don’t fare so well. Why risk ruining his confidence so soon? This move shouldn’t come from within, either. In all their other roles, the Tigers’ late inning pitchers have continuity. Breaking that up would only unnecessarily shake things up for a group who excelled in their roles last year.
Thus, watch for some type of outside move in the coming days. Despite their many assertions otherwise, Dombrowski and Leyland likely know the stakes are too high for their Tigers to let a rookie continue to struggle through in the late innings. That’s also quite true for Rondon himself, who’s facing a critical period within his personal development as a pitcher. Right now, he still looks like a thrower.
As Knobler admitted, finding such a deal at this point in time won’t be easy. Despite this, it makes a potential spring trade for a closer no less vital for the Tigers, especially if they value Rondon as a player.
Max DeMara is a senior editor at The Detroit Sports Site. You can find him on Twitter @SportsGuyTheMax