LAKELAND, Fla. — Until the Tigers head north and the 25-man roster is set, anything is possible with Bruce Rondon. Whether it makes sense to have him in Detroit come April 6 is open to interpretation, depending on who you ask. By no means are the Tigers betting 100 percent that Rondon will be on the team when the season starts, but they aren't ruling it out either.
The prevailing question has been why the Tigers would "rush" him back into the lineup after only a year removed from surgery. The team has seen him play a grand total of 30 games at the major league level, during which he posted a 3.45 ERA, 3.01 FIP, and 1.36 WHIP in 28 2/3 innings pitched. Yet the organization is relatively confident that Rondon will be able to handle the seventh inning and eventually take on more.
At 24, Rondon has a flame-throwing arm that tops 100 miles-per-hour on a regular basis when he's healthy. The key aspect of that equation is that he remains healthy, though. And Rondon is still throwing bullpen sessions. The frustration Rondon deals with on occasion adds to that mental game he's playing with himself.
No one has to tell him he needs to stay healthy, Rondon is very well aware of what the Tigers want from him. So too, do the Tigers realize they can't damage their own product, hence why they've continued to leave the door open on the amount of bullpen spots available as Opening Day approaches. As much as the Tigers would love for Rondon to be 100 percent, Rondon is still not comfortable facing live hitters.
"He's not quite there yet," Ausmus said. "Then, once we get him into games, we have to get him into back-to-back days. I would imagine that would be toward the end though. But like I said, this could stretch, if he's able to start the season, this progression could stretch into the season a little bit."
Competition limited for final bullpen spot
Does that mean that the Tigers are going to throw caution to the wind to keep him on the roster for Opening Day, even if he's not able to pitch back-to-back starts on a regular basis? No, but they've at least reached the point where, despite their caution, the Tigers are comfortable with the progress Rondon has made.
The bullpen may be "set" to an extent, but again, the team is leaving that door open for more than one spot because they don't yet know if Rondon will absolutely be ready. Also, spring training has only just begun and there is a month remaining until that decision needs to be made. At some point though, they'll have to make it.
"If (Rondon) was ready to start the season, even if we had to be careful about pitching him on back-to-back days, there's a good chance he'd be on the 25-man roster," Ausmus said. "As long as he's able to pitch effectively for an inning, take a day, for an inning. That type of thing."
As of right now, Rondon is still facing hitters in bullpen sessions. And if you're going to question the Tigers' confidence in Rondon, then the level of trust in other players bouncing back also needs to be put into question. Chief among them are Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria, and Joba Chamberlain, all of whom struggled mightily during some point (if not all) of the 2014 season.
Tom Gorzelanny, a left-handed pitcher who was quietly picked up by the Tigers has slipped into a guaranteed role in the bullpen, essentially replacing Phil Coke (who signed a minor league deal with the Cubs on Thursday). His acquisition and presence with the Tigers has not been discussed much, but yet he could easily provide the Tigers with a strong measure of assurance — if he can put up good numbers.
Gorzelanny is a left-handed pitcher who can get both lefties and righties out (lefties more often) and posted solid numbers in the past, leading up to a shoulder surgery he needed in 2014. Al Alburquerque is the only reliever of the six available who has not only remained steady and injury-free, but seems to be taking the "more fastballs" to heart this spring. Other than Alburquerque, every bullpen "lock" has some measure of question attached to him.
Rondon may have the biggest one tagged to him, but he's certainly not alone in that group. And until the regular season gets underway and relievers prove they can put their low points of 2014 behind them, the bullpen spots may be "set," but they're not without questions. The consistency and arm strength should come over time for Rondon, but the Tigers don't feel that he necessarily needs to be in the minors to get to that point.
"There's probably still a spot up for grabs," Ausmus said. "We still have to see how Rondon comes back, which would create another spot if he is not on schedule to start the season. At the same time, we need a couple guys to bounce back from seasons that don't seem to be the norm for them. I would completely agree with that assessment."