Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Bruce Rondon began a rehab assignment at Triple-A Toledo on Thursday. His fastball sat in the 96-97 mile-per-hour range on the stadium radar gun, but with some wildness. Rondon threw 22 pitches, 14 of them strikes. He got two outs and gave up a run on two hits.
Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Jose Reyes, who is also on a rehab assignment with Buffalo, greeted Rondon with a line drive single. Buffalo left fielder Brad Glenn lined a double off a hanging slider into the corner, scoring Reyes. MLB.com's Jason Beck reported the plans for Rondon's rehab assignment.
As long as Rondon feels fine on Friday, he’s scheduled to pitch again for the Mud Hens on Sunday night. Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said Thursday that Rondon will likely follow the Hens on their road trip next week to Louisville, Indianapolis and Columbus. He’ll have to pitch on back-to-back days and feel fine afterwards, Ausmus said, before returning to Detroit.
Tigers management has never hesitated to state that they would like to have Rondon play a significant role in the Detroit bullpen. He went to spring training in 2013 as the favorite to take over for Jose Valverde as the closer, but Rondon's command was not ready and he spent most of the season in Toledo. He was expected to play a set-up role behind Joe Nathan in 2014, but was sidelined due to Tommy John surgery before the season began.
Manager Brad Ausmus, as well as assistant general manager Al Avila, said that the club would be relying on Rondon to play an important role in the bullpen this season, but Rondon again began the season on the disabled list. Between the false starts and injuries, Rondon has only pitched 28 2/3 innings in the major leagues, all of those in the 2013 season. He sputtered early that season before being optioned to the minors, but was much better after being recalled. Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski lamented the fact that the team didn't have Rondon in the bullpen for the postseason that year.
While the Tigers would dearly love for Rondon to return in a blaze of glory with his triple-digit heater, striking out every batter that comes his way, a wiser course would be to stay patient. The Tigers have managed to piece together a bullpen that has blown just three saves, and just one game when they have been given a lead to hold.
Rondon will return eventually, though, displacing one of the seven current relievers on the roster. Which current member of the bullpen stands to lose his roster spot when Rondon returns?
Angel Nesbitt has played an increasingly important role in his rookie season, working in the seventh or eighth inning in close games. He would seem to be on the way up, rather than down. With multiple options remaining, however, he is a prime candidate to head south.
Joba Chamberlain is currently sitting in the spot that the Tigers would like Rondon to occupy. Chamberlain filled the eighth inning set-up role for the 2014 season and did an admirable job for four months, but was battered around late in the season. Ausmus seems unwilling to remove him from the role, despite looking shaky in recent outings. He has been getting hit again this season, but has blown only one save opportunity thus far. Chamberlain is out of options.
Al Alburquerque has struggled more than any reliever currently in the Tigers' bullpen. After leading the American League in both strikeout and walk rates in 2013, he managed to cut the walk rate in half in 2014 while still leading the Tigers' relief corps with 9.89 strikeouts per nine innings. This season, he is striking out just 5.5 batters and walking 4.92 per nine innings. He does have an option remaining, and that could be used to clear the way for Rondon.
Joakim Soria is the closer, who is out of options and isn't going anywhere. Tom Gorzelanny is a veteran lefthander who has no options remaining and is getting some occasional late inning work. He has allowed a 3.38 ERA and 3.50 FIP in 13 1/3 innings this season, but has not pitched since Sunday against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Blaine Hardy is the other lefthander in the bullpen. He struggled early in the season but has settled down, not allowing an earned run in 12 consecutive appearances. From April 26 to May 20, he has given up just five hits, two walks, and struck out nine in nine innings of work. Hardy was charged with a run on Thursday when he gave up a single, and was replaced by Chamberlain, who allowed the inherited runner to score. Hardy can be optioned without clearing waivers.
Alex Wilson was acquired along with Yoenis Cespedes in the trade of Rick Porcello this offseason. After starting the season in Toledo, Wilson has also piched very well lately. working 18 innings and giving up 10 hits and just two walks. He has struck out 11 batters. He has already burned an option this season, and can be shuttled between Detroit and Toledo as often as the Tigers would like.
Rondon's rehab assignment can last up to 30 days before the team will have to activate him. At that time, he will either assume a role in the Detroit bullpen or have to be optioned to the minor leagues. Which player do you think should be removed from the Tigers' 25-man roster when Rondon returns?