Bruce Rondon allowed a run Friday.
That alone cannot be attributed to being the cause of concern, but it may turn out to be the catalyst.
Rondon, the Tigers' assumed kid closer, enters 2013 with little track record above Double-A. What track record he has at all as a professional can be summarized in two statements: He throws fast, but he throws wild.
In the Futures Game, Rondon threw fastballs at speeds greater than 100 miles per hour. But for the 2012 season he unintentionally walked 24 batters in 53 innings. (Small though the sample size, Rondon unintentionally walked six batters in eight innings at Triple-A.)
Rondon has issued four free passes in three appearances totalling 2 2/3 innings. True, he is striking out batters, as he is known to do. But there are limits to how often a pitcher can work his way into trouble -- especially a rookie one pitching in the final inning of what presumably will be closer ballgames.
Which leads us back to Friday's game against the Mets. Rondon allowed the run on two hits, a walk and a wild pitch. Just one appearance, to be sure, but one that tidely highlights all the risks of a wild closer, rookie or not.
Appearances like that also lead to tweets like this from an out-of-town columnist known for trolling:
So I am not surprised to hear Leyland remains interested in bringing Valverde back as closer safety net but $$ still not right. #Tigers— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) March 2, 2013
Rondon case fascinates because #Tigers have terrific rotation/lineup/owner willing to spend. Can win it all, yet big risk at closer— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) March 2, 2013
It's easy to call that an overreaction, to question whether Sherman knows something about Leyland and Valverde, or is just stirring the pot. One can quickly point to alternatives the Tigers have in camp, from veterans Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel, to the Rondon-esque Al Alburquerque, to the unmentioned Brayan Villarreal, to, hey, maybe even Phil Coke.
But Detroit News columnist Lynn Henning, while not bring Valverde by name, seems on-point when he notes about Leyland:
A personal guess is Leyland is scared stiff his kid closer isn't ready. Minus an Opening Day closer he can trust, the Tigers could be in early trouble. In that dark scenario, Dombrowski will either be obliged to trade for a stand-in fireman, or borrow from the stable of seventh- and eighth-inning relievers in a community effort to finish games the Tigers should, on many days, be leading when that ninth arrives.
Leyland will take talent without asking for a detailed resume and list of references. Rondon is halfway there with the way he strikes out batters so frequently. But he's got a lot to learn. Leyland brought up the Jim Price-ism "art of pitching" when speaking to MLB.com on Friday. As in, Rondon's got the stuff, but has a lot to learn about becoming a pitcher. One does not send a pitcher to the ninth inning to learn how to pitch.
It seems especially weird to see Leyland so on board with the idea of Rondon pitching when you consider what he said during the 2012 playoffs. When Valverde was struggling, with media and fans piling on, Leyland said the team could not expect to advance far in the playoffs going closer by committee. They could not simply plug another pitcher in either. Leyland insisted that he needed Valverde happy and effective in the ninth inning.
Maybe the results of the postseason taught him otherwise, and old dog learning a new trick. The Tigers went to Phil Coke in the final frame. They finished off the A's, blew past the Yankees, and fell to the Giantsnot because of the bullpen but because the of the team's own inability to sratch out more than a run or two per game. It was the inexcusable disappearance of the middle of the lineup, not questions about the closer, that costed the Tigers in the World Series.
All of that sounds great, but the fact remains -- Leyland still likes Valverde.
"I'm shocked," Leyland told MLive's Chris Iott in February, speaking about Valverde's current situation as an unemployed closer who was a perfect 46-for-46 in the 2011 regular season.
"I can't believe it. This guy was absolutely fantastic -- absolutely fantastic -- for us. He was one of the best teammates I ever managed. ... I can't believe it."
It wouldnt be so hard to believe Leyland is doing some behind-closed-doors urging of his boss to bring back an "absolutely" fantastic closer.
But it would be hard to believe fans would ever accept Valverde back in the fold.
Bruce Rondon allowed a run Friday. I really wish he hadn't.