Rondon, Rondon, Rondon. We've been talking about him for years, ever since Dave Dombrowski let Jose Valverde walk in the 2012/2013 offseason and chose not to sign a "proven closer" for the team, thinking that Bruce Rondon (who had yet to pitch at the MLB level) was going to fill that role. The plan never materialized, and Valverde was hastily re-signed as the 2013 season neared its official opening.
Rondon then missed all of 2014 due to Tommy John surgery, and in 2015, after a rather lackluster season, he was unceremoniously sent home early for some sort of work ethic violation. Tigers radio analyst Jim Price points to the game near the end of the season where Rondon's velocity looked deliberately slower than normal and says, bluntly, "he actually quit, let's face it."
During Tuesday's game against the Atlanta Braves, Al Kaline joined Price in the radio booth for the final few innings, one of which featured Rondon on the mound and gave Kaline a chance to comment on the situation as a whole.
Kaline's primary complaint, stated multiple times and in different ways, is that Rondon just isn't consistent, and never has been. While being careful to distance himself from making any official pronouncement on Rondon's future, or to appear as though he was speaking for the front office, Kaline's assessment was that "it's hard to take somebody back with you [from spring training to the major leagues] if you can't trust him from game to game."
Consistency aside, Kaline had a few other criticisms to level at Rondon as well. We all hoped that last year's early dismissal would be a wake-up call for Rondon, and Kaline confirmed that "he's been a model citizen so far in spring training," but perhaps the underlying problems are still there. The organization never specified precisely why they sent Rondon home, but stray comments here and there suggested that he had a lackadaisical attitude and wasn't giving 100 percent effort. In light of that, Kaline's appraisal that Rondon lacks "fire on the mound," that he's "really laid back" and that -- despite throwing triple-digit heat -- he "gives no fear to the hitters whatsoever," is a little troubling.
As this conversation between Kaline and Price unfolded, Rondon allowed a run to score from third on a wild pitch, giving Kaline a living example of the problem he was discussing. Price commented that after the run scored, "you can see, his demeanor on the mound ... it's not a good demeanor," prompting Kaline to confirm, "He looks like he's defeated already." This, according to a couple of old-school baseball guys who played together on the 1968 World Championship team, is the opposite of how a closer should look and behave. "I want somebody who'll bounce around," said Kaline, "[someone who will] say 'I gotcha, I'm gonna get you, you're not gonna get me!'"
The team is still working with Rondon, even tinkering with his delivery during spring training, and Kaline noted that Rondon has speeded up his motion so that he's not using a delayed leg kick, a la Anibal Sanchez. Whether or not that will help anything remains to be seen, and while Kaline speculated that this should give Rondon more power and drive off of his back leg, it may also "hurt his command, because now he's starting something different."
There may yet be reason to think that the future can hold good things for Rondon. Power pitching out of the bullpen is a highly sought-after commodity, said Kaline, and "everybody's looking for somebody who can throw like this," so it would be in the team's best interests to work with Rondon for as long as possible. They payoff is worth the effort, and Kaline noted that the organization is "hoping that [Francisco] Rodriguez can be the guy that can influence him."
Consistency, demeanor, attitude on the mound, aggressiveness. These are the qualities that Rondon needs to develop, at least according to Jim Price and Al Kaline. The final chapter on Rondon has yet to be written, but with a guy like Joe Jimenez raising people's eyebrows and waiting in the wings, Rondon may not have a lot of time left if he wants to prove that he can live up to the original expectation of being the team's "Closer of the Future."