April 1, 2013

Catching Up: Thoughts on Bruce Rondon’s Demotion

Note to self, pro tip, etc.: Trying to get started on a blog the same week that area schools are on spring break, thus leaving little nieces at home to be supervised (and entertained), is not the best idea.

Of course, that inability to be productive was exacerbated when the Tigers sent reliever Bruce Rondon to Class AAA Toledo and signed Justin Verlander to a five-year, $140 million contract extension.

The better blogger thing to do would be to write separate posts on each subject. The Verlander news, especially, deserves its own entry. Clearly, I’m still in spring training mode.

But for now, with the 2013 season just hours away from beginning, let’s just get a few thoughts out there.

rondon_tigers

Plenty of people — fans, reporters, analysts — are surely ready to say “I told you so” about Rondon. (We should include Scott Boras, agent for reliever Rafael Soriano, among them.)

Being the closer for a World Series contender was a heavy responsibility for a pitcher who has yet to throw a pitch in the major leagues.

That’s not to say Rondon couldn’t have handled it. Now we’ll never know, of course. But Rondon didn’t look like he was quite ready for the pressure of the job. Not with a 5.84 ERA in Grapefruit League play with 17 hits allowed in 12. 1 innings.

Rondon’s 19 strikeouts show the firepower that made him an appealing closer candidate in the first place.

But his walk total had to be the largest concern. Rondon issued nine during the spring. That’s hardly an improvement over the 44 walks he threw in 53 innings (an average of 4.4 per nine frames) last season in the minors.

If there’s one thing Jim Leyland — or any MLB manager — isn’t going to tolerate, it’s putting runners on base, creating potential big innings and squandering leads (and wins with them).

That would apply to any major league team, let alone one that has championship aspirations.

But as George Sipple wrote in the Detroit Free Press, there’s just too much Rondon still needs to work on to be an effective major league reliever.

Leyland said he believes Rondon, who throws more than 100-m.p.h., needs to master his two- and four-seam fastball and slider. Others in the organization, according to Leyland, thought he also needed to master a fourth pitch — the change-up.

The pure stuff — topping 100 mph — is an excellent foundation to build on. However, the Tigers clearly think he still has to learn what Leyland has often called “the art of pitching.

Adding a pitch with some bend to it would certainly be an asset. So would an off-speed weapon that could disrupt hitters’ timing. But Leyland acknowledges that the kid can only learn so much this season. Closers don’t typically feature four pitches in their arsenal.

(And if the Tigers should have derived any lesson from calling up pitchers like Jeremy Bonderman and Rick Porcello before they had a chance to properly develop, it’s that secondary pitches have to be learned in the minors.)

Despite beginning the season in Toledo, the chances of Rondon still being the Tigers’ closer this year could still be pretty good. After all, Leyland didn’t name anyone to be the ninth-inning guy. The Tigers are going with the ol’ “closer by committee” approach.

Personally, I don’t think that approach works. It should work. Any competent major league pitcher should be able to get three outs with no opposing runners on base and a lead to protect.

The Tigers also have  their deepest bullpen in years, with Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel and Phil Coke capable of handling ninth-inning duties. Al Alburquerque should probably be included in that mix as well.

Ideally, one of those relievers would eventually establish himself as the closer or at least provide a stopgap until Rondon is ready. But the depth should allow Leyland to mix and match.

It’s possible that the Tigers’ relief corps is already used to the idea of a different guy getting the call, depending on the situation or match-up. That’s how Leyland managed his bullpen last postseason when Jose Valverde was no longer a trustworthy option.

Yet some relievers are obviously better suited to the closer role than others.  And though it’s not something that can be quantified, I believe pitchers — and any athlete, really — wants to know what their role is going to be each day when they get to the ballpark.

They want to know if they’ll get the call in the ninth inning. If they’re going to pitch the eighth, they want to know that. They want to know if they’re going to face the opponent’s best left-handed hitter late in a game. Knowing their role helps pitchers mentally prepare for the task at hand.

With the Tigers a strong favorite to win the American League pennant and advance to their second straight World Series, it doesn’t seem like the right year to conduct a grand experiment with the bullpen.

Yet Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski didn’t leave themselves much wiggle room.

The Tigers took the chance that Rondon could win the closer  job in spring training. It was a risk worth taking, as paying big money for free-agent closers just hasn’t worked all that well for Detroit (Valverde’s 49-save 2011 season excepted). And as mentioned above, the bullpen has plenty of other candidates who pitch in that role, even if they aren’t flashy names.

So sending Rondon down to the Mud Hens and going with a closer carousel is the right move to begin the season. Better that than risk Rondon getting shelled, the Tigers losing games and the pressure building on all involved.

But someone will eventually have to establish himself as the closer. Jason Motte did it with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011 and Sergio Romo asserted himself with the San Francisco Giants last season.

Who’s going to seize the opportunity this year for the Tigers?

Author’s Note: A commenter pointed out that Rondon wasn’t “demoted” because he hadn’t actually made the major league roster. That’s certainly correct and I probably should have used a more appropriate term, but I think the point of the overall post still stands. The correction is appreciated, however.

3 Comment(s)

  1. Rob | Apr 1, 2013 | Reply

    After the Tigers bounced him between reliever and starter I think they owe Coke a chance at the job – especially considering his performance in the play-offs. If he becomes even a decent closer it might make the Granderson for Scherzer, AJ, and Coke trade one of the best of all times

  2. Sally Groters | Apr 1, 2013 | Reply

    Demotion? Get Real…He was ASSIGNED to Teledo…you get demoted if you are ON a team…he wasn’t, he was in Big League Camp! The words all you guys use, are CRAZY !! Grandma G

  3. Ian Casselberry | Apr 1, 2013 | Reply

    Sally, fair point. Even if your way of putting it seems a little, well, crazy.

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