The Detroit Tigers are prepared to open the 2013 MLB season with hard-throwing Bruce Rondon as their closer. According to GM Dave Dombrowski in the Detroit Free Press, though, the 22-year-old will still have to prove he’s ready for the role:
He has closed games at the minor league level and winter ball in Venezuela and done it very successfully. He has that mentality. We're not anointing him that role. We hope he wins the job in spring training. I think, in my opinion, he'll handle it fine.
As arguably the top relief prospect in the game, the Tigers are hoping that they’ve found the next Craig Kimbrel in Rondon. While their confidence in the inexperienced right-hander is admirable, Rondon doesn’t project to be an elite closer like Kimbrel, at least not immediately.
Since arriving in the major leagues in late 2010, the 5'11" Kimbrel has appeared in 163 games for the Braves and registered a 1.46 ERA with 89 saves. He led all National League closers with 46 saves in 2011 and 42 in 2012, and he was selected to the National League All-Star team in each year.
Boasting a fastball that sits in the high-90s and occasionally reaches triple-digits, not to mention one of the filthiest sliders in the game, Kimbrel has been a one-man wrecking crew as the Braves closer.
The right-hander has amassed 283 strikeouts (15.9 K/9) compared to only 62 walks (3.5 BB/9) and 84 hits allowed in 160.1 major league innings. Last season, he fanned more than half the batters he faced.
After recording 29 saves with a 1.53 ERA and 66 strikeouts in 53 innings last season across three advanced levels—he finished the year at Triple-A Toledo—Rondon is ready for the challenge of the major leagues in 2013.
At 6’3”, 255 pounds, he just looks like he throws smoke. And sure enough, the right-hander features a plus-plus fastball that sits between 98-102 mph with late life to the arm side.
As the only plus offering in his arsenal, Rondon throws the pitch in any count, and he isn’t afraid to attack the top of the zone. Although he also mixes in a slider and changeup, neither offering is a legitimate out pitch and needs further refinement.
What distinguishes Kimbrel from Rondon is the presence of a devastating, wipeout slider that induces endless swing-and-misses. While the former is dependent upon his ability to overpower opposing hitters with velocity, Kimbrel is adept at locating and mixing both pitches.
Simply put, he rarely gives hitters the chance to get comfortable in the box.
With an elite fastball and fringy command, there’s a strong chance that Rondon develops into a Jordan Walden-like closer, as Eric Karabell of ESPN.com originally suggested.
However, the fact that Kimbrel’s control and command didn’t improve until he reached the major leagues—he owned a 5.7 BB/9 at the time he was promoted—portends that Rondon’s control (5.1 BB/9) and feel for the strike zone stands to improve as he settles in.
Although he has all the makings of a future late-inning force, he’ll be forced to at least match expectations this spring in order to break camp as the Tigers’ lone closer.
I still wouldn’t be surprised if the organization decided to make a last-minute addition to its bullpen—likely a player with experience as closer—in an effort to ease Rondon into the role. Having said that, it’s also conceivable that he’ll share the ninth inning with a combination of Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Al Albuquerque.
While the Tigers have made it clear that the right-hander is their closer of the future, it’s hard to believe that they don’t already have a backup option in place. Regardless, the organization wants Rondon to succeed, so expect the Tigers to stand by him, especially early in the season.