Bruce Rondon is not ready to close games in Detroit.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland said earlier this week that it was “possible” Rondon could begin the season as part of a closer-by-committee group. That made it clear that Leyland has already decided that Rondon is not ready to shoulder the responsibility by himself.
Leyland does not want to mix and match closers — especially on a team for which anything short of a return to the World Series will be a major disappointment. Teams that take that approach do so for one reason: They do not have a closer and are making do. But it could be Leyland’s only option.
The Tigers soon will either attempt to deal for a quality closer — which will be extremely difficult at this time of the year — or decide that the eventual closer already is on the roster and just needs to shake out.
Though, the Washington Nationals could be a trade partner with two proven closers in Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard now likely pitching the seventh and eighth innings with free-agent closer Rafael Soriano added.
If Rondon is not ready to be the closer, he is not ready for the Detroit roster. He is no doubt the likely closer of the future, but keeping him in the bullpen for low-pressure situations doesn’t really help him or the team.
Send Rondon back to Triple-A Toledo, where he has pitched only nine games. Let Mud Hens pitching coach A.J. Sager, one of the top minor league instructors going, works with him on a daily basis. He’s only 22 years old, and has plenty of time to develop.
Jamming him into the bullpen with no real role means that somebody who is ready to pitch in the majors and help win games — Darin Downs, Brayan Villarreal or perhaps Drew Smyly — is going to Toledo instead. That makes no sense.
Now, Rondon looked pretty good Thursday against the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie. He had his first 1-2-3 inning of the spring, but the only batter he faced who could make the Mets was center fielder Collin Cowgill.
He threw strikes on eight of 12 pitches, had two first-pitch strikes, and got two of those swing-and-miss sliders Leyland has wanted to see. Rondon got a ground out, fly out and strikeout. But he also got away with a 95 mph fastball right down the pipe that Jamie Hoffmann swung at and missed.
But, it was definitely an outing to build off for Rondon.
He throws his fastball over 100 mph on a regular basis, and that’s awesome. But it’s not enough. He had been hit hard all spring — even after a four-day break between outings to work on a more fluid delivery with Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones.
Using the slider to keep hitters off balance, commanding his heater to avoid fat pitches and getting ahead in the count had been problems for Rondon until Thursday.
Keep him on the roster until the final spring game March 30 and let Rondon pitch in that game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. It will be his first game in a major league park and another part of his maturation process. The comfort he is gaining with Leyland, his catchers, coaches and teammates during spring training will make him that much more ready when he does get the call.
Rondon has the stuff, swagger and mentality to be a closer. His repertoire just isn’t quite there yet, but his time almost surely will come.
And I believe the Tigers already have the closer solution on this roster.
What closer-by-committee would allow is for somebody like Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit, or Villarreal to find a groove and become the closer. I don’t think Leyland sees Octavio Dotel as a closer — even though he was one earlier in his career.
My choice for most likely to succeed is Alburquerque. He’s back from elbow surgery with that great fastball and killer slider — that put-away pitch closers must have.
Alburquerque pitches Friday against the Toronto Blue Jays, and has thrown seven innings while striking out 11 with one earned run this spring.
Rondon will get his chance, but now is not the time to chance him as the closer. It’s that simple.