Early this year, Tigers GM David Dombrowski announced that 22 year-old Bruce Rondon would get a chance to be the Tigers closer in 2013.
“We’re not anointing him the closer, but we’re hopeful he’ll take the job in spring training,” Dombrowski said in early February.
That was then, before spring training. Before Rondon pitched 12. 1 spotty innings, going out of camp with a bloated ERA of 5.84, having given up 8 runs including two long balls. In those twelve innings, Rondon has walked nine batters. In today’s seventh inning performance against the Phillies, Rondon balked a runner home. Hardly closer stuff. There’s no head-scratching involved; the kid’s just not ready.
Whether Rondon has the “closer’s mentality” or not, which Dombrowski seems to believe he does, his 2.11 WHIP is nowhere near that of a closer’s. Opponents are hitting .327 off of Rondon, who coincidentally has never pitched an inning in the Major Leagues.
So, if this was Dombrowski’s definition of a try-out for Rondon, it’s safe to say he’s failed the test, but that isn’t the Tigers problem. Rondon is only 22, and has plenty of time to figure things out in AAA Toledo. The Tigers’ real problem is the fact they have exactly five days until the regular season begins, and no real closer on their staff.
This is really the Tigers’ only weakness heading into the regular season, and it’s a situation that could have been avoided. It was clear by late 2012 that the Tigers were not looking for outside help at the closer position, after allowing Jose Valverde to become a free agent without making an attempt to re-sign him.
No fault is due the Tigers for letting the declining Valverde go, but Dombrowski may be kicking himself for nonchalantly assuming he could solve the closer role in-house.
The Tigers could look to Phil Coke, who bailed them out and stepped in to close two games after Valverde’s shocking postseason collapse, or they could call on veterans Octavio Dotel and Joaquin Benoit to join Coke and form a committee. Neither situation is ideal.
Barring a miracle in the next few days, or a midseason deadline-trade, the Tigers glaring weakness at the closer position will haunt them all season long, and an otherwise well-balanced ball club will be one diamond short of a World Series Ring.