DETROIT — Bruce Rondon will be the most intriguing Tigers player when spring training begins in three months.
Even if the club trades for or acquires a free-agent closer such as Ryan Madson, Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski whetted the appetite of fans when he addressed the media after the World Series and said, “Do not discount Bruce Rondon in the role of closer on our ballclub.”
Rondon also has Paul Bunyan-esque qualities going for him.
His average fastball clocks in at 99 or 100 mph. He tops out at 103 on a pitch with movement, and he has a plus slider and changeup to keep in the back of a batter’s mind.
According to the weights listed on the Tigers roster, he tips the scales at 265 pounds — heavier than both Miguel Cabrera and the man he hopes to replace, Jose “Papa Grande” Valverde.
Rondon also has the big numbers. He was a combined 2-1 with a 1.53 ERA, 29 saves, 66 strikeouts, 26 walks and 53 innings pitched for Class A Lakeland (22 games), Double-A Erie (21 games) and Triple-A Toledo (nine games) in 2012. He was the pitching counterpart to outfielder Avisail Garcia, 21, who also began the season with Lakeland and made it all the way to Detroit.
Rondon, who turns 22 next month, is now ripping it up for Magallanes in the highly competitive Venezuelan Winter League. Pitching against many major leaguers, he’s 4-0 with a 0.90 ERA and has four saves in as many opportunities. He has 13 strikeouts, four walks and a WHIP of 1.00 in 10 innings pitched.
“Last year, he made tremendous strides,” Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila said. “Bruce had more control of his delivery and threw more strikes. He learned how to pitch.
“What makes him effective is the movement. You know how when Joel Zumaya threw 100, he used every ounce of energy? Rondo’s arm action is very easy. He hits 99 and 100 very often and tops out at 103. His fastball sinks and runs, and he has a really good, hard slider. He also has a good changeup — three pitches to throw at you.”
Miguel Garcia, one of the Tigers scouts who discovered and signed Rondon, also spotted Cabrera as a teenager and forged a relationship with the family that enabled the Florida Marlins to sign him. Avila and Dombrowski brought Garcia, now the club’s Latin American scouting director, with them after leaving Florida for Detroit.
“He (Rondon) was a catcher when our guys first saw him in Valencia in Venezuela,” Avila said. “Our scout suggested to his buscone (a talent scout-agent who grooms Latin players) that he convert from catcher to pitcher.
“He had a great arm but was not really a pitcher. He was pretty raw. But when we signed Bruce (at age 16), he was a pitcher. He’s come a long way since then.”
Can he make the jump from the minors to closing in the majors without a break-in period?
“He’s been lights-out in winter ball,” Avila said. “There’s no question he can compete for a spot in our bullpen.
“He’s a competitor on the mound and tough-minded. He’s not going to melt down. He will come at you on the mound. He’s an imposing guy, but not tall like Papa Grande.”
At 6-feet-3, Rondon is one inch shorter than Valverde and more compact.
Rondon throws with the velocity that Zumaya and Justin Verlander brought in 2006, and Rondon’s command is on a par with what they had as rookies.
Command, the ability to hit spots consistently, is the challenge for every young hurler.
“Command is what he needs a little more work on,” Avila said. “When he does achieve it, he will be lights-out here.”
If the Tigers take a chance and open the season with Rondon closing and he doesn’t get the job done, they’ll have Joaquin Benoit and Phil Coke ready to “mix and match,” as Dombrowski put it.
Dombrowski also said that the Tigers would’ve added Rondon to the postseason roster had they known Valverde would totally lose it.
Detroit’s brass is higher right now on Rondon than they are on Garcia, who made an impact with the Tigers late in the season and even in the playoffs.
There are recent examples of successful, young closers. Huston Street (2005 with Oakland), Andrew Bailey (2009 with Oakland) and Neftali Feliz (2010 with Texas) won AL Rookie of the Year honors as closers. And Craig Kimbrel was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2011 as Atlanta’s closer.
Jonathan Papelbon, who was second in 2006 AL rookie voting, had a little break-in period, throwing 34 innings in 2005, and Kimbrel pitched in 21 games in 2010. Street turned 22 — the same age Rondon will be — in his first season; Papelbon was 25 as a rookie and Kimbrel 23.
Still, most of the game’s top closers spent three or four years as bullpen apprentices in the majors before nailing down the ninth-inning role.
Mariano Rivera, Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez, Aroldis Chapman, Todd Jones and Valverde became closers in their third seasons. Trevor Hoffman, Eric Gagne, Rollie Fingers and John Wetteland got the job in their fourth seasons.
How long it takes Rondon to become Tigers closer remains to be seen, but watching him take his shot should be something to see.