Detroit Tigers: Is It a Mistake to Depend on Closer Bruce Rondon?
Raise your hand if you'd heard of Bruce Rondon before a month ago.
Most Tigers fans had no clue who he was last season, and now, going into 2013 Spring Training, Detroit is handing Rondon the keys to the closer job.
And it seems a bit premature.
Rondon, a 21-year-old right-hander from Venezuela, began his professional career when he signed with the Tigers in 2008, playing for the the VSL Tigers in the Venezuelan Summer League.
Rondon, who began his professional career as a starter, also played in the Gulf Coast League until August 2010, when he transitioned to the bullpen before playing with Single-A Lakeland.
Last season, Rondon started the year with Lakeland where he made 22 appearances out of the bullpen, throwing 23 1/3 innings and boasting a 1.93 ERA with 15 saves. He got called up to Double-A Erie midway through the season and made 21 appearances, earning an even more impressive 0.83 ERA and 12 saves in 21 2/3 innings.
Rondon ended last season with Triple-A Toledo, making nine appearances for the Mud Hens. His ERA was 2.25 in eight innings, but scouts saw what he was capable of against top-tier Minor League talent, prompting him to be the front-runner for the job that Jose Valverde unceremoniously vacated at the end of last season.
Rondon earned 66 strikeouts in 53 innings last season, and has a fastball that has topped off at 103 miles per hour and routinely gets clocked in triple digits. He has dominating stuff that is closer-worthy, but he has also shown rookie-like control issues.
Along with his 66 strikeouts, he also gave up 26 walks in his 53 innings last season.
The Tigers love the potential that Rondon has displayed, but at times he has also shown that he is still very raw.
Despite New York Yankees closer Rafael Soriano available in free agency, the Tigers' front office has insisted that they won't make a move for Soriano, nor will they make a run at any other big-name closer.
So the Tigers are left with Rondon.
"Preferably, I'd like to have somebody," Manager Jim Leyland told reporters during baseball's Winter Meetings earlier this week.
Leyland said he isn't quite ready to proclaim Rondon as his long-term solution, or even his Opening Day starter, but he told reporters that, at this point, he'd rather put his faith in Rondon than having a closer-by-committee approach going into the season.
"'When you've got to do it by committee, if you have to pick and choose, then you leave yourself open for second guessing,' he said. 'It takes away a lot of questions after the game.'"
Who is the Tigers' best option at closer in 2013
But the Tigers' willingness to depend on Rondon's progression and success might come back to haunt them.
It's extremely risky for the Tigers to put all of their chips in the basket of an unproven, untested 21-year-old rookie, especially in such a crucial role.
Rumors have surfaced that if Rondon isn't up to the task of closing, the Tigers can find a suitable replacement during the season, or even as late as the trade deadline—but by then it might be too late.
Closing games in the Major Leagues is a science, and if a team doesn't have a dominant closer, they usually don't fare very well for a long period of time.
Only time will tell if Rondon will be the answer for the Tigers, but I think it's a mistake for Detroit to depend on someone who's never thrown a Major League pitch.
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