Right hander Bruce Rondon was all but given the job as closer of the reigning AL Champion Detroit Tigers even before pitchers and catchers reported to Lakeland in February. The Tigers spent the Winter spurning the advances of seemingly every free agent reliever and maintained that if Rondon wasn’t their guy, they were prepared to use a committee of closers.
As it goes, Rondon had a poor camp, allowing far too many walks and far too many hits. His triple-digit fastball and quality off-speed offerings were too often either off the plate, or right down the middle of it. By the time the Tigers had broken camp, Rondon was on his way to Toledo, where he opened as the closer of the Triple-A Mud Hens.
Meanwhile, the Tigers back-end didn’t inspire much confidence. Right handers Octavio Dotel and Brayan Villarreal have been erratic at best and the closer committee took only two days to blow their first save of the year. It was that save, served up by left hander Phil Coke, that preceded the news that the Tigers had signed veteran Jose Valverde to a minor league deal.
On Tuesday, the Tigers placed Dotel on the disabled list and recalled Rondon from Toledo. All he had done for the Hens was work 7.2 innings of scoreless relief, allowing five hits and two walks while fanning nine. He was surely disappointed by the way Spring Training played out, but Rondon had taken his medicine, gone down to Toledo and put his work in and now was being rewarded. It was assumed that this move would pave the way for Valverde to take over in Toledo as he was set to move on from High-A Lakeland.
A funny thing happened on the way to the start of what should be a promising career for Rondon, however. Instead of Valverde meeting up with the Hens as they begin a road trip, he flew into Detroit for the purposes of signing a one-year major league deal with the Tigers. He was immediately named the team’s closer. Rondon, it would appear, will work in middle relief.
Of course, this news doesn’t have to mean the end of Rondon’s development as Detroit’s closer of the future. Having the opportunity to ease into the job by learning in a less-pressurized role could very well help the young hurler when he inevitably does take the reigns for the Tigers, whether that be this season on next.
The bigger issue here isn’t necessarily the fact that Valverde is now squarely in the way of Rondon becoming the closer, it’s that those in power in Detroit still insist that Valverde was necessary because he, unlike Coke, or Rondon, or Joaquin Benoit, or Al Alburquerque, is what is referred to as a “proven closer” and that such a thing is somehow valuable.
The only proof Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski should need to the contrary is found in the two teams that bested Detroit in their last two trips to the World Series. Sergio Romo had never been a closer before last season and didn’t even get the bulk of the chances until very late in the year. He showed no ill-effects in closing out the Tigers. In 2006 it was rookie Adam Wainwright that filled in for Jason Isringhausen for the Cardinals and closed out the five-game victory over the heavily-favored Tigers.