The Detroit Tigers will let closer Jose Valverde leave as a free agent this offseason after an enigmatic season capped off by an utter collapse in the playoffs. Valvere saved 35 games even in a down-year while he rest of the Tigers saved just 5 games. But the Tigers aren’t worrying in the slightest as their closer departs. They believe Bruce Rondon and his fireballing arsenal are ready for the big leagues and will give him every opportunity (as Aaron Somers discussed yesterday) to prove that.
Rondon, who will turn 22 in December, is 2 inches shorter and 15 pounds heavier than Valverde as 6’2″, 270. But boy can he bring it. After managing a 2-to- 1 strikeout to walk ratio at not a single level he played it in his first four pro seasons, Rondon reported to High-A Lakeland to begin 2012 and proceeded to blow hitters away, posting a 1.93 ERA, a 13.1 K/9, a 3.9 BB/9, a 0.4 HR/9, and 15 saves in 22 relief appearances and 23.1 innings pitched. The Tigers sent him up to Double-A Erie and his ERA checked in at a run better at 0.83 to go along with a 9.6 K/9, a 3.7 BB/9, a 0.4 HR/9, and 12 saves in 21 appearances and 21.2 innings pitched. And he closed out the year at Triple-A Toledo, managing a 2.25 ERA and a 9-7 strikeout to walk ratio in 8 innings across 9 appearances. Truth be told, Rondon might be best served starting out 2013 at Triple-A. But his stuff is too good for the Tigers not to give him a long look for not just a big league bullpen job, but their closer role.
Rondon doesn’t touch just 97 MPH- that’s the low end of his range. His fastball consistently pumps 100 MPH and has hit as high as 103. But it isn’t 100 MPH and straight either. It blows away hitters with sink and late run, making the nearly impossible task of trying to hit a fastball past the century mark even harder. Rondon fastball causes whiff after whiff and even when hitters are lucky enough to connect it’s almost impossible to get the ball on the barrel- hitters have hit just 5 home runs in Rondon’ s 196 professional innings and despite being a power pitcher, his groundball rate was 50.0% in 2012 according to Minor League Central. Rondon’s biggest issue, though, is harnessing his fastball’s movement himself as sometimes he has no idea where the pitch is going and can walk batter after batter when he loses control. If Rondon can’t locate his fastball, big league hitters will lay off and one-inning outings where he walks multiple batters could become far too common. But Rondon’s fastball is overpowering enough in terms of both velocity and movement that if he can manage just decent control of it, hitters will have an awfully hard time against him.
Other than his fastball, Rondon throws a slider and a changeup, both in the high-80′s. His slider features solid late break, which is all it needs to play as a plus pitch considering hitters will constantly be looking fastball against him, while his changeup flashes plus but he also struggles to make it look like a strike. Rondon was unhittable against right-handed batters in 2012, allowing an incomprehensible .094/.178/.094 line with a 41-8 strikeout to walk ratio in 118 plate appearances, but he struggled against lefty batters, allowing a .263/.410/.400 line with a 25-18 strikeout to walk ratio and all 5 extra-base hits he allowed all season, including 3 home runs, in 101 plate appearances. A big part of that had to be the Tigers making Rondon work on his changeup and use it more than he was comfortable, but he has to improve his changeup to the point where it can be a second weapon for him against left-handed batters after his fastball. With any consistency on his secondary pitches, hitters will be in trouble as they look fastball and suddenly Rondon gets them out front with another pitch, but Rondon will have to prove that to be the case, especially against left-handed batters.
You don’t see pitchers go from High-A to closer in just one year, but Bruce Rondon has the ability to be the exception. His stuff is downright nasty and by the time the season gets underway, Rondon could be taking the big leagues by storm. No guarantees for Rondon as he has plenty of things to work on and many adjustments to make in order to succeed the majors- but he has the stuff to dumbfound hitters and scintillate Tigers fans for years to come.