Denny Medley-US PRESSWIRE
Throwing a rookie Bruce Rondon in as the Tigers' 20313 closer might not end all arguments, but it's a good test case in the nature vs. nurture world of closing. Whether he sinks or swims really doesn't matter in the end -- unless, of course, you're Bruce Rondon.
The Tigers must find a closer before the 2013 season starts, or else ___________________.
The world will end? Well, the Mayans thought the world was ending last Friday and it didn't, so doubtful.
Mass hysteria and panic on Woodward Avenue? Not by rational people, no.
The Tigers will lose all 162 games? Not even the Cubs could accomplish that.
It will tax and confuse the pitchers? Perhaps, but some teams have found success using a "closer by committee" approach.
Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland won't be happy? Yes. That one is completely true.
The Tigers don't really need a closer to be successful next season, but baseball convention celebrates closers and organizations have become hypersensitive about filling that role. The Tigers are no exception. For Dombrowski, finding someone for the ninth inning this offseason is just as important as it is for a six-year-old to get a LEGO Ninjago or Wii U* for Christmas -- even if he won't admit that in public. I've always praised Leyland for being rational, but when I stood mere feet from him at the winter meetings and listened to him extol the virtues of any pitcher who is tough enough to handle the ninth inning, I realized he must be chugging the closer Kool-Aid between Marlboro Reds.
*I'm told these are popular children's toys this holiday. I crowd-sourced that information from Twitter, seeing as I don't buy gifts for any children currently. I received a lot of suggestions, all of which seemed safer than Mainway toy's Bag O'Glass and Johnny Switchblade: Adventure Punk.
The obsession with closers has turned into baseball's own nature vs. nurture argument. The nature folks think there is a super-breed of pitchers who are hatched somewhere and have the ability to swoop in to the final inning with high velocity and grittiness; the nurture side think that most pitchers can find success in the ninth through coaching, a baseline of talent, and happenstance. Nurture is the logical answer and don't let anyone tell you otherwise -- pitchers aren't bred to be closers, just as mechanics aren't born with an innate ability to adjust your carburetor. The sooner everyone accepts that, the better we will all be (except for the closers, because they will take a pay cut), but until then a stubborn belief in nature means recruiting closers has become a bit like Gattaca: Phil Coke will have to scrub his body clean of loose skin and purchase Jonathan Papelbon's fingerprints in order to prove he possesses the mental toughness and makeup to take over the ninth.
No matter how silly the obsession, the Tigers will have specified a closer next season because Leyland feels there's just too much guesswork in managing a bullpen without one. At the winter meetings, Leyland said, "To be honest with you, from a selfish standpoint, you very rarely ever second guess. When you do it by committee, and you pick and choose, then you leave yourself open for second-guessing." That's the reason a lot of managers favor having a designated closer in their bullpen. When someone in the closer role fails, they are blamed for not performing and the manager is insulated. When the manager is choosing who pitches the ninth not based on preestablished roles but rather on a situational basis and that decision fails, there's room to criticize. For any manager, that's self-preservation; having a scapegoat can be the difference between employment and managing OzzieGuillen.com.
The Tigers could look to a free agent to fill the closer void, but Dombrowski and Leyland seem to be leaning towards giving homegrown talent Bruce Rondon a chance. This would be an accelerated timeline for Rondon, who started 2012 in Lakeland and finished in Triple-A Toledo, but there's always been a twinkle in Dombrowski's eye when he talks about the 22-year-old pitcher, who he believes has the talent and the toughness to close. Even though Rondon had only nine appearances at Toledo, the lack of experience won't deter Dombrowski, who recently said that he would have considered adding him to the September roster had he known Jose Valverde was going to struggle.
There is no question that Rondon has tremendous upside, but there's also cause for concern. He's had some experience as a closer in the minors and has shown excellent velocity with his fastball (sitting 97-100 mph), but problems with command, especially of his slider, could mean high walk rates and unpredictability. In the minors, Rondon has averaged 5.1 walks per nine innings, a number that jumped to 7.9 in Toledo. If you're a comp person, imagine the heat of Joel Zumaya mixed with the occasional command of Rick Ankiel. There's a chance Rondon's command will improve as he matures, but it sounds like the Tigers won't wait for that and are ready to test him at the major league level barring a dramatic collapse in spring training.
Rushing Rondon really isn't a big deal. He doesn't have a lot of Triple-A experience, but rookie status alone is not a cause for concern. Jonathan Papelbon, John Axford, Hector Santiago, Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Bailey, Jordan Walden, Neftali Feliz, and several more have been pushed into the closer role directly from the minors; some have succeeded while others have not. Obviously Papelbon has emerged as one of the most consistent closers in the game and Kimbrel may be right behind him, but there are also guys like Santiago that were touted almost as highly as Rondon, only to fall short in the ninth inning. Predicting rookies at any position is difficult, but due to their limited exposure there is less risk in testing a reliever's major league ability than, say, bringing up Nick Castellanos too early.
I realize we look at closers as Atlas-like linchpins of success, but even when a team lets a full-season of bad closing happen, they don't hurt the team as much as you might think. Brad Lidge's epic meltdown in 2009, one of the worst seasons by a closer in history, was only -0.8 WAR, and rookie closers tend to be on a much shorter leash than veterans. For Rondon, it would take just a few blown saves for management to consider a different approach, especially given they that have Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit, and Brayan Villarreal on the roster as well. If a young closer can't produce, he'll either get the chance again or adjust to a different role in the bullpen.
Nothing terrible has to happen when a team doesn't have an established closer, or when a first-time closer fails. The world doesn't end, the mass hysteria is fabricated, and even though it's harder for managers to cope in-game (they have to, well, manage), it's doable. If Dombrowski and Leyland really have such good feelings about giving their homegrown closer a try, it seems perfectly reasonable and low-risk to try-I'll allow nature win this time.