Pros, Cons of Tigers Trusting a Rookie Closer on a Potential World Series Team
For a team with World Series aspirations, the Detroit Tigers are taking a large gamble on giving a rookie—Bruce Rondon the first shot at closing in 2013.
Rondon, who has never pitched in the majors before, is the leading candidate to become the Tigers' closer. He has the Tigers salivating at the prospect of a closer who has a fastball that can hit triple digits, which could lead to quick one-two-three innings. The problem is that Rondon has a tendency to be wild on occasion and miss the strike zone, which would ultimately nullify his three-digit fastball.
Until Rondon actually closes in the MLB, no one knows how he'll be able to handle the pressure of closing for a team with such lofty expectations.
Some pitchers embrace the pressure of closing and others don't have the personality to do it. While no one can say for certain how Rondon will be able to handle the Tigers' closer role, there are three very distinct pros and cons of having a rookie closer on a contending team.
Honorable Mention Pro and Con: Youth
"People don't believe this, but it is true," Dombrowski said. "He averages 100 mph and tops off at 103 and throws his breaking stuff for consistent strikes. We really, really seriously thought of, before the first of September, if we should bring him up and let him join us for the postseason."
Due to Rondon's age, he can fully rely on his fastball and not yet worry about changing his approach to pitching—unlike older pitchers who have wear-and-tear.
Some pitchers make a successful transition once they start to lose speed off their fastballs and others struggle and need to change their approach to pitching, which can end up badly.
The Tigers are banking on Rondon's fastball to blow hitters away and make quick work of hitters in the ninth.
Last year's closer Jose Valverde, 34, struggled with getting one-two-three innings. While no one has an exact answer to why his effectiveness has waned, Valverde's age and 10 years of service have had some sort of impact on his pitching.
Common sense dictates that when most players age, they lose their effectiveness from when they were at their peak. The Tigers won't have any worries about Rondon, since he's still young and hasn't hit his prime yet.
However at the same time, Rondon's youth could work against him. He still needs to refine his pitching to cut down on his occasional wildness. Rondon, who has a career 5.1 BB/9 needs to learn that it's acceptable to dial back on his fastball to gain better control over it. The BB/9 ratio will improve as Rondon learns how to "pitch" in the majors and not just "throw".
This will come from experience and learning how to be the most effective on the mound.
3. Con: Fan and Media Pressure
One of the side effects of being on a team that is expected to contend for a World Series title, is that fan expectations get ratcheted up a notch and everyone is under additional scrutiny.
If a player struggles during the season, then the media will add to the pressure by continually asking a player about what adjustments, if any, they are doing to rectify their issues.
The Tigers are inviting this scrutiny of Bruce Rondon by being so public with their expectations of him for the season. Unlike having Rondon begin in a less publicized area of the team, like middle relief, the Tigers have elected to throw him into a critical position that can directly impact the success of the team.
If Rondon struggles, then the media will write article after article, and continually ask Tigers manager Jim Leyland if they are considering a change at closer.
Then fans may start to blame Rondon for any problems that affect the Tigers' success. This could jeopardize Rondon's confidence in himself, which is critical to any closer.
When a rookie gets counted on as a key piece on a contending team, it is a tough line to walk for any front office and coaching staff. With the explosion of the Internet and social media, any player struggles are magnified significantly more than in the past.
3. Pro: Can Develop a Strong Work Ethic
Rondon is fortunate to be a rookie in Detroit. He is joining an already established team that has the past two AL MVPs, as well as a clubhouse that by all accounts gets along very well.
Most of the Tigers' star players appear not to have large egos and are not likely to feel threatened by a rookie closer who is getting all this attention.
This is not always the case, as some could feel threatened by a rookie. At the same time, Rondon will be able to witness pitchers like Justin Verlander and Doug Fister prepare to pitch and see their work ethic. This will be a great example of how to be successful in the majors. Rondon will be able to gain valuable lessons that he would never learn in the minor leagues.
It also helps that strong veteran leaders Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter are available to help Rondon make the transition to being a big league closer. Some rookies come into a young clubhouse and aren't shown the proper way to prepare.
The Tigers also can benefit from Rondon being a rookie, since he isn't already established and wants to prove he belongs in the major leagues.
If the Tigers had to bring in a veteran closer, that veteran may not be so adaptable to suggestions from the coaching staff. He might disrupt the clubhouse or not be willing to improve.
2. Con: A Replacement Would Be More Expensive During the Season
If Bruce Rondon wins the Detroit Tigers closer job and isn't successful this season, it could be very costly for the Tigers.
The Tigers had a chance to sign several free agent closers this offseason but passed on the opportunities.
If Rondon falls though and they need to trade for a closer, then teams will know that the Tigers are probably desperate and drive up the asking price.
This would cause the Tigers to sacrifice a player or prospect they wouldn't have had to give up in the offseason. If the Tigers decide to go the internal route with replacing Rondon, it could cause reshuffling among the pitchers in the bullpen and they may struggle to adjust to their new roles.
While this is all speculative, the Tigers must be prepared for all scenarios in dealing with Rondon since he is a rookie and there is a level of mystery that comes with.
On Feb. 24, Nick Cafardo from the Boston Globe mentioned that free agent closer Brian Wilson could be a candidate to close for the Tigers if Rondon falters (via mlbtraderumors.com).
Wilson, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, has big-league experience. However, he might not be fully recovered from his surgery yet.
Regardless, the Tigers understand the chance they are taking with Rondon and that is a lot more challenging than dealing with the media and fan scrutiny. If the Tigers need to go the trade route and have to sacrifice a prospect for a closer, then it would have been a very expensive risk that could haunt the Tigers for many years to come.
2. Pro: Closer Mentality
Bruce Rondon might be a rookie closer for the Detroit Tigers in 2013, but he has had extensive experience closing in the minor leagues. While other internal candidates have proven themselves in the major leagues, they have yet to handle the pressure of closing.
Rondon has had 65 saves in the minors—including 29 in 2012. He has shown that he possesses the mentality and temperament for the closer role in the developmental leagues.
It is important for the Tigers to see his body of work in the minor leagues, since he can't control that he hasn't closed in the major leagues yet.
The key will be whether or not Rondon can apply his minor league experience to closing in the major leagues. Whether or not it happens is up to Rondon, but it's a positive sign that he has the experience.
This is why the closer mentality is more important for Rondon than his work ethic is, since an essential part of closing is not holding on to failures and controlling emotions.
1. Con: Experience
Regardless of how well Bruce Rondon and the Detroit Tigers believe he is prepared to handle the closer job, no one can be 100 percent sure.
Experience is the biggest obstacle for Rondon to overcome in order to gain the team and the players' trust. While Rondon closed in the minor leagues, it is a different experience in the major leagues.
Rondon needs to realize that the batters are a lot more talented and that he can't just rely on his fastball to get batters out. Rondon will need to cut down on his wildness and learn to throw more breaking pitches.
Rondon has a career 5.1 BB/9 ratio, but he has worked on lowering that number. Rondon had a 4.4 BB/9 throughout all levels of his minor league teams in 2012. What is more troubling is that in his eight innings pitched at Triple-A, his BB/9 ratio jumped to 7.9.
The batters at Triple-A were the best hitters that Rondon has faced so far in his career, but they are nowhere close to the batters he will see every day with the Tigers.
The experience of a rookie closer is a major risk for the Tigers and this question won't be answered until late in the season when there is a better sample size from which to judge Rondon. The key will be once batters have faced him several times, whether Rondon can make an adjustment in his approach to the batters.
In Rondon's first appearance in spring training on Feb. 23, he threw 24 pitches, 21 of which were fastballs. If Rondon is to succeed as a closer with the Tigers, he'll need to learn how to vary his fastball speed and incorporate more breaking balls to keep hitters off-balance.
That kind of knowledge comes from experience—and the lack thereof could end up backfiring on the Tigers in 2013.
1. Pro: Saves Money for Other Areas
Bruce Rondon is arguably the biggest reason why the Detroit Tigers have improved themselves from a year ago.
By anointing a rookie as a lead candidate to close in 2013 so early in the offseason, it provided the Tigers with options that they may not have had been able to afford otherwise.
On Oct. 30, 2012 Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski spoke in his end of season press conference about the faith they had in Rondon (via Chris Iott at MLive.com):
"This guy is a special potential closer with the makeup of a closer," Dombrowski said. "Normally you're not going to thrust that in a young guy's hands and say automatically, 'That's your job,' but it would not surprise me if he earned that job."
If the Tigers didn't trust that Rondon could handle the closer role in 2013, then they probably would have signed a free agent closer who has experience in the major leagues.
The Tigers were linked to veteran closers this past offseason because the media and fans were surprised that the Tigers would entrust a rookie with such an important role on a World Series contending team. The team had been connected to free agent closer Rafael Soriano throughout the offseason until he signed a two-year deal Jan. 17 with the Washington Nationals.
If the Tigers had signed Soriano, they would have needed to invest a sizable amount of cash, plus forfeit their first round pick to the New York Yankees.
By not having to sign a closer, the Tigers redistributed the money they saved and in turn got to re-sign pitcher Anibal Sanchez, as well as sign free agent outfielder Torii Hunter from the Los Angeles Angels.
While the Tigers' budget wasn't made known, who knows if the Tigers could have afforded Sanchez if they needed to sign a closer. At the beginning of the offseason, many fans thought that Sanchez would be too expensive for the Tigers to re-sign based on other needs.
By re-signing Sanchez, the Tigers' pitching staff is formidable and potentially the best starting rotation in the AL. They are also better defensively with Hunter in right field.
Heading into the 2013 season, the Tigers are a stronger World Series contender than they were a year ago and it is because of Rondon. This pro is the most important aspect to consider when judging Rondon this season, as the financial benefits of having him close will ultimately allow the team to strengthen other weaknesses.
*All statistics are from baseball-reference.com