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MLB Opening Day 2017: Bruce Rondon is a lock for the Tigers’ bullpen

After an odd spring, the Tigers will trust Rondon to turn up the gas when the season begins.

Detroit Tigers Photo Day Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Bruce Rondon has spent a good portion of his spring camp dogged by sour notes in the media. He came to camp badly out of shape. He isn’t throwing as hard as his coaches would like. He’s uncommunicative and uncoachable. This sort of innuendo has followed him all through March, pausing only during his two-week stint with Team Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic. Yet, as MLive’s Evan Woodberry reported Tuesday night, Rondon’s spot in the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen is assured for Opening Day.

With that announcement from manager Brad Ausmus, and an earlier one placing Anibal Sanchez in the bullpen to start the season, the Tigers’ relief corps is close to being set. Francisco Rodriguez, Justin Wilson and Alex Wilson are in, with Shane Greene presumably making six, with just one opening still available. While Angel Nesbitt has impressed some observers this spring and prospect Joe Jimenez continues to dazzle, the final spot will presumably go to a lefthander. That leaves Kyle Ryan and Blaine Hardy as the two most likely candidates to round out the bullpen as the season gets underway.

While the concerns around Rondon may have had some basis in reality, much of it has seemed overblown from the start. Manager Brad Ausmus expressed a little surprise early in camp that they weren’t seeing the high-90s fastball expected from Rondon. However, with the same breath, he also cautioned that it wasn’t at all rare to see a pitcher not quite at full power in March. Ausmus said that he expected to see a little higher octane during Rondon’s work for Team Venezuela. And he was right. Rondon regularly sat in the high-90s during the tournament. For whatever reason, that didn’t seem to affect the rumor mill.

Instead, speculation has continued into Rondon’s weight, his work ethic, and his psyche. To a degree, this is Rondon’s own fault. Getting sent home for what the Tigers described as subpar effort in 2015 isn’t something the fanbase or the media forget. But it’s also possible that this is simply an example of how one incident can color peoples’ opinion of a player so thoroughly, that nothing else is able to penetrate the narrative.

This is all compounded by the fact that Rondon was oversold from the beginning. The “future closer” talk to a fanbase desperate for a solid bullpen set expectations too high. Rondon’s solid rookie campaign is still regarded as something of a failure to many people. Had he come out and dominated in his 2015 return from Tommy John surgery, opinions would be much different, and his reputation less open to assault. Instead he was unceremoniously sent home late in the season, and showed no signs of dominating until his second half run in 2016.

There are more obscure narratives around Rondon that show a very different side of him than the surly, uncoachable flame-thrower many regard him as. In an interview series with TigsTown, Tigers prospect Anthony Castro spoke of Rondon in glowing and grateful terms for his support when Castro was forced to undergo his own Tommy John surgery in 2015.

Bruce had a lot of advice to me as far as the surgery itself and the rehab. He's older than me and he's a big leaguer so he's like a father figure to us young guys. I appreciated his advice. He taught me so much last year when he was in Lakeland rehabbing. He would come to the GCL games and watch us pitch and then give us advice. He's a great guy.

Another more popularly reported story is Rondon’s oft-expressed gratitude for Francisco Rodriguez’s mentorship in 2016. The Tigers closer went out of his way to take his young Venezuelan teammate under his wing, and their relationship bore fruit for Rondon last season.

The on-field evidence of Rodriguez’s influence surely went under the radar last season. Rondon showed better awareness at checking runners than he had previously, though this is still a work in progress. He also started varying his delivery times, a tactic Rodriguez uses to mess with hitters’ timing. There were even some instances of Rondon quick-pitching opponents to steal a strike here or there. These aren’t momentous developments, but they do speak to a greater appreciation of the finer points of a pitcher’s craft and a more mature approach.

There is also this hint, in Evan Woodberry’s piece for MLive, that perhaps some of the inconsistency in Rondon’s velocity and pitch selection this spring may be be design.

"He has expressed to us that he doesn't want some of these guys that he knows he's going to face during the season to see everything he has, so to speak," Ausmus said.

That’s a thought process that smacks of Rodriguez’s influence. It also bears out the downplaying Ausmus has consistently done toward Rondon’s supposed issues this spring.

Rondon has seemed to mature as a pitcher over the past year. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he produced the best numbers of his career, including a jaw-dropping 31.3 percent strikeout rate. Even better, he coupled it with the lowest walk rate of his three major league seasons. He boasts a high octane fastball and a devastating slider, but has shown some recent signs of vulnerability to the long ball. He remains unproven, and certainly there are still questions to be put to rest, but the ability is undeniable. Rather than the space between his ears, or anyone’s guesses into his psychology, it’s the 60 feet and six inches to home plate where the truth is going to win out.

Opening Day 2017 Preview!

Nai-post ni Bless You Boys: For Detroit Tigers Fans noong Miyerkules, Marso 29, 2017