Rondon's Wish Could Help Tigers
Looking at Bruce Rondon's face, it is easy to see a 7-year-old boy in a 22-year-old man's body.
The Tigers pitching prospect has a baby face with chubby cheeks and dimples that practically light up when he smiles. It is a face that belies his imposing 6-foot-3, 275-pound presence.
It is also easy to picture tears running down that face in the spring of 1998 when Rondon was told by officials of the youth league in his hometown of Valencia, Venezuela, that he would not be allowed to pitch. They said he threw too hard.
"They thought I might hurt one of the other kids if I hit them with a pitch," Rondon said following a spring training workout, with Tigers media relations coordinator Aileen Villarreal serving as his translator.
So the coaches handed the burly youngster a mask, chest protector and shin guards and told him he was a catcher.
"I didn't think I would ever pitch," Rondon said. "I would get sad sometimes when I was little because I really wanted to pitch. That's what I wanted to do more than anything. That is what I wished for."
Now grown up, Rondon's wish has come true. The Tigers signed him in 2007 and Miguel Garcia, the organization's scouting supervisor in Venezuela, quickly moved Rondon from one end of the battery to the other.
Rondon has made such a successful conversion from catcher to pitcher that he stands a good chance of beginning the season as the closer for the defending American League champion Tigers.
The Tigers did not proclaim Rondon their closer entering spring training, wanting him to earn the job during the exhibition season, and there was no timetable for the official announcement. Rondon was hit hard in some of his early Grapefruit League appearances, however the Tigers' actions—or inaction—during the offseason made clear their confidence in him.
The Tigers allowed Jose Valverde, their closer the previous three seasons, to walk as a free agent after he had a couple of major meltdowns in the postseason. Yet the Tigers did not pursue any veteran closers, even though agent Scott Boras put the hard sell on them to sign client Rafael Soriano as a free agent.
Without another clear-cut closer on the roster, the Tigers seem to be taking a risk in entrusting the job to someone who has yet to throw a major league pitch and has worked just eight innings at Triple-A.
"There's a little anxiety to the situation, but what offsets that to me is talent. And this kid has a lot of it," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "The kid throws 100 miles an hour consistently. Even as hard as guys throw today, how many pitchers in the big leagues do that?
"We'll see how he handles the situation, but I don't think you can ever go wrong betting on that kind of talent."
Rondon's fastball has been clocked as high as 104 mph during his five-year professional career and sits at 97-100 mph. He also greatly improved his slider last season and his changeup is good enough to at least keep hitters from completely gearing up for the hard stuff.
After repeating the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League to start his career, Rondon has posted dominant statistics over the past three seasons. He has gone 4-3, 1.50 with 65 saves in 121 games, allowing 67 hits while striking out 160 and walking 76 in 126 innings. The high walk rate is a reason for concern, but the Tigers feel Rondon's command is improving. He also is able to get out of jams with his overpowering, something he did in his spring debut this year against the Blue Jays.
Rondon walked Brett Lawrie with one out then surrendered a double to Adam Lind, but escaped unscathed by striking out J.P. Arencibia and Josh Thole swinging.
While the second contest of the Grapefruit League season presents less pressure than closing out a regular season game, Rondon seems to possess the confidence necessary to close at the major league level.
When asked if he enjoyed closing, Rondon didn't need a translator. He broke into a big grin and said, "yes!"
"The No. 1 thing is that is that I have confidence from the organization—the pitching coach, the manager, everyone," Rondon added. "It's most important to have that and I thank the organization for that. It's easy to have confidence when you know others have confidence in you."
Leyland shares that confidence, at least to an extent.
"I'll tell you this, it's going to be exciting because he's going to throw it hard," Leyland said. "I don't know if he's going to throw it in the ocean but he's going to throw it hard."
And this time, no one is going to ban him from the mound.