Yesterday Jim Leyland named Joaquin Benoit the "sorta" closer. But if Benoit moves from eighth inning duty to the ninth, who replaces Benoit? Drew Smyly continues to prove his value in the bullpen, picking up the win last night. But he best in multi-inning stretches, and may eventually start. And he is left-handed, so the unwritten baseball rules suggest that he not be named THE eighth inning guy. Bruce Rondon had a cup of coffee with the Tigers in April and quickly returned to the Mud Hens. Is he ready to return to Detroit?
In Rondon's first stint with the Tigers he pitched in all of three games covering two and a third innings, allowing three runs on five hits and two walks with only one strikeout. The results included the good, the bad, and the ugly; but it was less than three innings! If we judged Rick Porcello on a random selection of three innings this year, we would determine that he was somewhere between the best pitcher in baseball and a dumpster fire.
In Toledo Rondon has appeared in 27 games and finished 24, so he is being used exclusively in a "closer" role apparently being groomed for the same role in Detroit. His numbers are sparkling. His tiny 1.01 ERA reflects only 12 hits and 12 walks in 26 2/3 innings. Less than one hit every two innings is due to 38 strikeouts, or almost one and a half an inning. The walks, and two hit batters, are a blemish on his fine record.
What would I do with Rondon? If the only goal is his development, I would leave him in Toledo and have him pitch to about nine batters at a time to refine his command. It may be heresy in this age of the defined closer role, but have him pitch the eighth and ninth innings. Try to lower the walk rate to about three per nine innings rather than four.
I would love to see Rondon sent to Erie and start every fifth day to get the most innings possible and really work on command, but that will not happen. In six minor league seasons he has pitched only 222 2/3 innings. And the most innings he has thrown in a season is 55 1/3, pitching as a starter at age 17 in the Venezuelan summer league. When the Tigers brought up Joel Zumaya in 2006 he had 171 1/3 innings in two years of Double-A and Triple-A work. Rondon has only 56 1/3 comparable innings.
But what is best for the Tigers in the short term? We want a dominant closer in the playoffs. Rondon is the one pitcher in the organization with the stuff to grow into the role by the end of the season. Bring him back to Detroit soon and give him the seventh or eighth inning, or both, a couple times a week. Have him enter the game with nobody on base, starting the inning, so the walks will not force in a run. Understand that every once in a while there will be a three or four walk inning and just accept it as growing pains.