In a year filled with injuries, poor performance, and PR blunders, the Detroit Tigers combined all three in one moment on Tuesday when they announced that reliever Bruce Rondon had been sent home for the remainder of the season due to "effort level." Rondon, a 24-year-old righthander who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014, spent most of second half as the team's closer before he was sent home.
After coming off the disabled list in June, Rondon was 1-0 with a 5.81 ERA and 4.11 FIP in 31 innings. He blew four of nine save opportunities, including three of his last four chances. Lately, a drop in fastball velocity had the Tigers brass perplexed, and a visibly perturbed Brad Ausmus offered an unusually abrupt answer to Rondon's scoreless appearance on Monday evening: "He got three outs."
Following Rondon's dismissal, the Tigers were equally abrupt. "Bruce Rondon, because of his effort level, has been sent home," was all Ausmus would offer, and general manager Al Avila has not offered any additional comment. Catcher Alex Avila offered the loudest response, saying "To be a big component on the team, you've got to be here on the team. There's nothing else really for me to say."
Reading between what few lines we have been given is a fruitless exercise, but there is plenty to glean from what isn't being said. For one, Rondon's offenses must be egregious enough for the Tigers to take action with two weeks remaining in the season. Publicly lambasting a player for his effort level is a rare occurrence in baseball, especially to this degree. With a ready-made excuse in place in Rondon's surgically repaired elbow, the Tigers could have easily called any disappearance an innings limit for the season. Instead, they purposely chose to feed Rondon to the dogs, to what ends we do not yet know.
The most worrying aspect of this saga is that this is not Rondon's first time of being accused for a lack of focus. TigsTown's Paul Wezner tweeted that this has been an issue "throughout his career," while Tony Paul of the Detroit News has heard similar stories from multiple people within the organization. Radio announcer Jim Price called Rondon's transgressions "unforgivable," and ESPN's Eduardo Perez dubbed Rondon "an embarrassment to the game of baseball."
In other words, we can't see a fire, but there is a hell of a lot of smoke around these parts.
The Tigers' decision to make Rondon's lack of effort public is also puzzling because of what it does to his trade stock. On the surface, Rondon is a young pitcher with a triple-digit fastball and four years of club control remaining. Opposing teams may have been able to unearth some of Rondon's lackadaisical habits on their own, but potentially not to the degree that this statement does. Rondon's trade value has plummeted within the past 24 hours, and it remains to be seen how keen the Tigers are on keeping him around in 2016.
As puzzling as this announcement is for the Tigers, it's even more so for Rondon himself. Presented with a golden opportunity to lock down the closer position for 2016, Rondon has thrown away his chance, both with his on-field performance and off-field preparation. He has long been the reliever with the highest upside in the entire organization -- it's no wonder the Tigers were hoping he could be their Opening Day closer in 2013 -- but his recent actions seem to have put his entire career in jeopardy.
The best case scenario for the Tigers is that this dismissal provides the wake-up call that Rondon seems to need. Players cannot get by on God-given talent alone in the major leagues, and it seems that Rondon has yet to learn this lesson. Perhaps a public shaming, the likes of which we have not seen from the Tigers in a long time, will show him the error of his ways. It could also spell the end of his tenure in Detroit, almost before it even began.