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Tigers Relying On Bruce Rondon To Bolster Back Of Bullpen

By David Heck, Special to CBS Local Sports

CBS Local Sports will be profiling one young player from each Major League Baseball team every day for the next 30 days as part of our “30 Players 30 Days” spring training feature.

Bruce Rondon, Relief Pitcher, Detroit Tigers

2012 season (minors): 53.0 IP, 1.53 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 29 SV, 66 K, 26 BB

In 2011, Jose Valverde was the most reliable closer in baseball, converting all 49 save opportunities he received in the regular season and another three in the playoffs. In 2012, things were different; his ERA rose by over a run and a half, he blew five saves in the regular season and he surrendered nine runs in just 2.2 postseason innings. For all their strengths, the Tigers did not have a player upon whom they could rely to shut the door.

With Valverde now gone, the Tigers hope that Rondon is the player they can put their trust in. There is certainly some reason for optimism. The 22-year-old right-hander dominated three levels of the minors last year, earning Detroit’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award. He struck out a quarter of all batters he faced and ranked third in the minors with 29 saves – perhaps proving that he has the fabled “closer’s mentality.”

Rondon’s repertoire is consistent with that of a traditional power closer. He can dial the fastball up to triple digits, and he’s got a hard-breaking slider with which to strike players out. But he’s got his problems as well. As hard as the fastball is, it’s straight as an arrow. That means that Major League hitters will be able to catch up to it once in a while, and when they do, it’ll go far. The other issue is Rondon’s lack of control. He walked almost one batter every two innings last year, with his walk rate at Triple-A the most concerning (seven free passes in 8.0 innings).

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Early into Spring Training, Rondon has struggled, which has already called into doubt his role with the Tigers. He’s yielded four runs in five innings (7.20 ERA), striking out seven and walking eight. Jim Leyland is an old-school manager who makes players earn their roles, so it’s no surprise that he’s expressed skepticism about Rondon. The team is reportedly looking into other potential closers, either internally or through a trade, to take the pressure off.

But even if Rondon doesn’t take the closer’s role, he’s still likely to be a valuable and important part of the Tigers’ bullpen. He will fit in well with the team’s cadre of power relievers, along with Joaquin Benoit, Al Albuquerque and Octavio Dotel. The Tigers’ bullpen was far from great last year – they ranked 18th in the Majors with a 3.79 ERA – but with Rondon and others capable of dominance, it might be one of the squad’s assets this season.

Next up on March 8: Kansas City Royals

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