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Tigers player preview: Can Bruce Rondon fulfill his promise in 2015?

Bruce Rondon has been front-runner in any conversation regarding the Tigers bullpen since Jose Valverde's reign as the Tigers' closer ended. Can he live up to the hype after returning from season-ending Tommy John surgery?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

For three seasons, the Detroit Tigers have opened spring training hoping for big things from Bruce Rondon. Those sizable expectations may fit the flame-throwing righthander's 6'3", 275-pound frame, but injury and bouts of poor command have seen those hopes go unfulfilled. Yet, the potential is still strong for Rondon to significantly influence the bullpen. If his recovery from Tommy John surgery is as successful as it appears, he will have plenty of chances to seize a late innings role with the Tigers in 2015.

Rondon was signed by the Tigers in 2007 as a 17-year-old international free agent. A native of the northern Venezuelan city of Valencia near the Caribbean coast, Rondon got his start in the Venezuelan Summer League and the Gulf Coast League. He progressed through rookie ball to reach the Class A minors in 2010, and was quickly viewed as a possible closer of the future. Rondon has pitched exclusively as a reliever since the early days of his tenure in the Tigers organization.

In 2011, Rondon pitched 40 innings for the West Michigan Whitecaps, turning heads with a 2.03 ERA and a gaudy strikeout rate of 13.73 per nine innings. Those numbers earned him a selection to the Midwest League All-Star game, though shoulder issues ended his season prematurely. Baseball America ranked Rondon as the 12th-best prospect in the Tiger farm system in late 2011.

From that point on, Rondon's rise to the ranks as a top prospect was rapid. In 2012 he moved quickly from Class A Lakeland, to the Double-A Erie Seawolves, and then on to Toledo, compiling 29 saves across three levels. He showed development in his changeup and breaking ball, giving him a much stronger array of secondary offerings to back a triple digit fastball, though his command at times appeared a work in progress. By spring of 2013, Minor League Ball ranked him the Tigers' No. 3 prospect behind Avisail Garcia and Nick Castellanos.

Even so, many were shocked to hear Tigers President and GM Dave Dombrowski seemingly anoint Rondon the closer-apparent before the 2013 season. Coming on the heels of Jose Valverde's disastrous 2012 campaign, handing the keys of the closer role to a rookie struck many as an unwise leap of faith. Rondon confirmed those fears by struggling with his control early in camp, and the Tigers optioned him to Toledo to start the 2013 campaign.

Rondon made a brief appearance in the major leagues in late April and early May before being sent back down to Toledo, where he racked up 14 saves behind a minuscule 1.52 ERA with 40 strikeouts and 13 walks over 29 2/3 innings. He was recalled to the majors on June 28, and spent the rest of the season with the Tigers, throwing a total of 28 2/3 innings at the major league level with a solid ERA of 3.45 and 30 strikeouts to just 11 walks.

It wasn't everything the Tigers hoped for, but the 2013 campaign was a solid step forward for Rondon. Unfortunately, the elbow soreness he experienced late in the season kept him off the postseason roster. Ultimately he needed Tommy John surgery in March 2014 and was lost for the season. A year later, however, the surgery was a complete success by all accounts. Rondon has returned to the Tigers this spring ahead of schedule, and with his trademark velocity apparently none the worse for wear.

Contract Status

Bruce Rondon is under team control until 2020 and won't be arbitration eligible until 2017. He has just over a year and a half of major league service time. Rondon has two options remaining, and he'll make the league minimum (just over $507,500) this season.

Stats and projections
Year IP ERA WHIP FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9
2013 28.2 3.45 1.36 3.01 9.42 3.45 .63
Steamer 45.0 3.33 1.22 3.23 10.24 3.62 .73
ZIPS 39.7 4.31 1.46 4.06 8.84 4.53 .91

As one might expect for a pitcher recovery from Tommy John surgery, the 2015 projections are wildly varying, and of course, they can't fully take into account the volatility of the Tigers bullpen. When we last saw Rondon, he was still working to command his wipeout slider and a low 90s changeup, with movement not unlike another pitcher's sinker. He has one of the most explosive fastballs in the game, and thus far this spring it appears wholly undiminished in velocity.

At every point along his path to the majors, Rondon has had no trouble striking out a batter per inning. The real question has been whether he can keep his walks down against MLB hitters. While Rondon looks like a lock to start the season with the Tigers, don't be surprised if he continues to struggle with his control at times early on. He may require a tune-up trip to Toledo at some point, but the stuff is absolutely legit.

As he works out the kinks it's likely that Rondon will get stronger as the year progresses, and you should expect similar overall numbers to what we saw in 2013. If he can stay healthy and continue along the path he was on in 2013, the Tigers may finally have a dependable, high-powered weapon to solidify the back end of the bullpen.

With so many questions surrounding Joe Nathan, it would shock no one to see Rondon in the closer's role at some point this season, although Joakim Soria will have the most to say about it if Nathan can't rebound. But with constant bullpen issues being the Tigers' Achilles Heel during their dominance over the A.L. Central, they need 2015 to be the year Rondon finally delivers on the promise he's shown.