Tigers view Rondon with excitement, uncertainty

Bruce Rondon was chatting with reporters in the clubhouse with

help from a translator when he was asked how fast he can really

throw.

The Detroit Tigers prospect claimed to have reached 104 mph.

”I want to see that,” teammate Joaquin Benoit said.

Skepticism, excitement – and most of all, curiosity. That’s what

the Tigers are feeling about Rondon right now. The 6-foot-3,

275-pound right-hander from Venezuela could be the team’s closer on

opening day, but he’s never thrown a major league pitch. Now, the

defending American League champions are giving him a chance to play

a crucial role in their bullpen.

”A lot of players on our team, regular players, you know what

you’re going to get from them. The only question mark I have so far

is Rondon,” reliever Octavio Dotel said. ”He’s got to relax

himself every time he’s coming to pitch in the ninth. That’s what

I’m going to give him, and I’m going to inject into him every day,

every time.”

Detroit let Jose Valverde go after last season and instead of

acquiring a veteran closer, the Tigers let the job remain vacant.

The reason for that was Rondon, who turned 22 in December and is

entering his sixth season with the organization.

Rondon was chosen Detroit’s minor league pitcher of the year in

2012, when he posted 29 saves and a 1.53 ERA with Class-A Lakeland,

Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo.

Impressive numbers, to be sure, but Rondon pitched only eight

innings with Toledo. In 196 career minor league innings, he has 213

strikeouts. He’s allowed 111 walks, but opponents hit only .189

against him.

Manager Jim Leyland doesn’t want Rondon’s progress to become a

daily issue at spring training, and he’s indicated he’ll take his

time before deciding how ready the big reliever is for the

majors.

”He’s been a strikeout guy in the minor leagues. We’re in the

big leagues now,” Leyland said. ”I’m not running away from it,

but I’m not going to get into it every day. We’ve got a guy on our

hands with a huge arm – how it’s going to play out, I can’t answer

that, but that’s what we’ve got.”

If Rondon doesn’t win the closer job, Detroit has other options

for the ninth inning. Benoit struggled to keep the ball in the park

last year, but he had a 2.95 ERA in 2011 for the Tigers. Al

Alburquerque has a 1.59 ERA in 49 big league appearances. Dotel has

109 career saves, and Leyland used Phil Coke in crucial spots last

year while trying to mix and match his way through the postseason

after Valverde faltered.

But for now, Rondon is on the spot. He certainly has the size

and the look of an intimidating reliever, but his motion seems

reasonably effortless.

”That’s what makes him a little bit different than guys that

throw as hard as he does,” catcher Alex Avila said. ”He’s not as

violent with his motion, which is a good thing, because it adds

deception.”

Rondon will face opposing hitters soon enough during spring

training, and throughout this audition he’ll have plenty of players

in the Detroit clubhouse who can provide support.

What advice has he already received?

”At every level, it’s just baseball,” Rondon said.

The Tigers certainly hope there’s a lot of truth to that.

”He’s got a very smooth motion, very deliberate. Then right at

the last minute, right when he lets go, it’s like an explosion out

of his hand,” Avila said. ”It’s awesome. Guys like him, with that

type of talent, don’t come around often. Sometimes when they do,

they don’t last, so it’ll be interesting to see how he responds and

how he takes to this opportunity.”