Reliever Bruce Rondon, who has been sidelined all season with shoulder tendonitis, is currently completing a rehab assignment in Toledo that began on May 21. The Tigers had planned on giving the hard-throwing righthander a major set-up role at the start of the season, and they may still do that once he is healthy.
Rondon has made nine appearances for the Mud Hens, posting a 10.38 ERA while surrendering 11 runs, 15 hits, and five walks. He has struck out nine batters in 8 2/3 innings. Opponents have hit .375 against Rondon, including nine hits in his last four outings. He has a WHIP of 2.31. There is nothing in those numbers that suggest that he is ready for major league action, let alone high leverage duty.
Update: Rondon has been recalled from his rehab assignment and optioned to Triple-A Toledo.
After years of frustration with a sub-standard bullpen, the Tigers finally have put together a respectable relief corps. Detroit's bullpen ranks fifth in the league with a 3.24 ERA which would be their lowest mark this century, over a full run lower than in 2014. Their WHIP of 1.24 would be the lowest mark in years, down from 1.48 in 2014. More importantly, the Tigers bullpen has rarely lost a game this season when inheriting a lead.
If Rondon is activated, as the Tigers hinted at over the weekend, what role would he play in the Detroit bullpen?
Rondon's entire body of work in the major leagues came during the 2013 season. He was up and down between Toledo and Detroit, but posted a healthy 1.23 ERA while striking out 18 batters and walking six over 14 2/3 innings in August and September. He missed the 2013 postseason and the entire 2014 season due to injury. Still, the Tigers may have Rondon work his way into a seventh or eighth inning set-up role.
The Tigers bullpen has performed a high wire act at times in the late innings this season. While Joakim Soria has been lights out in the ninth inning, Joba Chamberlain has managed to hold a deceptive ERA of 1.13, while allowing a 1.38 WHIP and a 3.10 FIP. He has allowed just one home run, a crushing three-run blast against the White Sox on May 6, resulting in his only blown save and loss this season. Opponents are hitting .297 against Chamberlain, but keeping the ball in the park keeps the damage to a minimum.
Sharing setup time with Chamberlain is Blaine Hardy. After giving up just one home run in 2014, Hardy has not allowed a home run this season in 24 innings of work. He was tagged with his first blown save and loss on June 13, when he gave up a pair of runs and let a 3-2 lead slip away against the Indians. Hardy has recently eaten into Chamberlain's hold on eighth inning duty when a key situation against a left-handed hitter arises. Otherwise, Hardy has been the secondary set-up man in the bullpen.
Alex Wilson leads all Tigers relievers in innings pitched, walk rate, and shares the team lead (with Hardy) with 0.4 fWAR. Opponents are batting just .189 against Wilson, who has a stellar 0.73 WHIP. He has allowed just one home run this season, but is not often given the ball with the lead.
That gives the Tigers four relief pitchers who are performing better than any quartet this franchise has seen since Dave Dombrowski took the reigns as president of the club. Between them, manager Brad Ausmus has coverage for any situation where the team has a lead or is tied in the late innings. Whether Rondon adds anything to that mix depends on how close he can come to approximating his performance when he last pitched in Detroit. Rondon's destiny is in a set-up role with the Tigers, but they would do well to make the transition gradually, rather than quickly.
It's not like the Tigers don't have questions about their bullpen. Al Alburquerque struggled early, walking more and striking out less while surrendering four home runs. He ran off a stretch of twelve scoreless appearances, but has given up 24 hits in 25 innings of work this season. Alburquerque can be very effective, but he still feels like a home run waiting to happen.
Tom Gorzelanny may be running out of time. In 18 innings of work, often with the platoon advantage, he has a 6.27 ERA with a 1.80 WHIP, walking almost five batters per nine innings. The Tigers recently called up Ian Krol, who was prone to giving up home runs in his last two tours of the major leagues. If Krol can keep the ball in the yard, he has an excellent shot at being the second left-hander in the bullpen going forward. The team likely does not want to keep three left-handers in the bullpen for long.
A pitcher can be on a rehab assignment up to 30 days before he must be activated. At that point, the Tigers could option Rondon to the minor leagues. He has two options remaining. They might be wise to wait out the 30 days and, if necessary, use the option until Rondon is dominating hitters at the Triple-A level before they activate him and put him on the major league roster.