This time last year, Bruce Rondon was the favorite to start the season as the Tigers' closer. The job was his if he could step up and claim it, but he came up short and began the season back in the minor leagues. This time around, with Joe Nathan signed to be the closer, Rondon appears to be the favorite to start the season as the Tigers' primary setup man.
Tigers' President and General Manager, Dave Dombrowski said last December after Nathan was signed:
"The person we're hoping to really step up for us once again -- and we really think he's capable of doing it -- is Bruce Rondon. He's healthy. Feeling good. We look at him as a potential eighth-inning guy, and the rest of the bullpen will fall into place after that.
In Bruce's case, we continue to think that he has setup abilities. We think he's going to be healthy for the year, but we also think the depth is important, and we think we have a guy in Joba who's capable of doing that."
There are similarities between Rondon's situation this season and where he was a year ago, and there are some differences. The confidence that the Tigers show in his ability has not changed. What is different is that he is not expected to go from the minor leagues straight to ninth inning duty without missing a beat.
Rondon now has the better part of a season of major league ball under his belt, and it was a season where he showed great progress and great potential. Insert all the cautionary remarks here about drawing conclusions from small samples, but it's fair to conclude that Rondon showed flashes of brilliance that have left Dombrowski drooling for more, almost wishing him into being major league ready.
Rondon was sent down to the minors twice during the season. After a brief call up for three appearances at the end of April, he was battered around for three runs, five hits, and a pair of walks in just 2 1/3 innings, and returned to Toledo for more fine tuning. He posted a 1.52 ERA in 29 2/3 innings in Toledo, with a WHIP of 0.91. When he was recalled again at the end of June, he fared much better, holding the opposition without an earned run in 13 of his final 17 outings, including zeroes in his last six appearances.
Most importantly for Rondon, the control issues that plagued him in his first call up to Detroit had calmed down, as he issued just five walks in his final 17 games. In the end, inflammation in his elbow put an end to his season, and he missed the playoffs -- a factor that Dombrowski pointed to as one of the reasons for the Tiger loss against Boston in the ALCS.
Despite the overall instability in the Tiger bullpen in 2013. they got reasonably good performance in the late innings. Much of that was due to the stellar work done by Drew Smyly in a set up role for much of the season. Smyly was among the league leaders in WAR, FIP, HR/9, BB/9, and ERA last year, so Rondon has a big hole to plug.
Opponents hit .308/.372/.500/.872 against Rondon in the first half of the season, but just .222/.295/.343/.638 after the break. He allowed just two home runs, one triple, and did not issue an intentional walk or hit a batter so far in his major league career. Rondon never allowed more than one home run at any level in the minors in a single season.
Key to Success
Location, location, location. Control and command are the key to Rondon's success. Despite the high velocity on his fastball which reaches triple digits at times, he allowed opponents a batting line of .282/.367/.410/.777 against the heater. That's an indication that he needs better location even when it is over the plate.
Outlook for 2014
The final decision rests with the manager, but based on Dombrowski's comments above, the Tigers are expecting Rondon to be the primary set up man for Nathan this season.