Indians Expect Rondon To Flourish In Any Role

AKRON, OHIO—Hector Rondon was cruising along at 5-0, 1.23 in his first five Double-A starts when the Indians made a surprising call to the Akron manager and coaching staff.

Indians brass was suddenly interested in accelerating the righthander's path to the major leagues, but desperately needed him as a reliever in an effort to find someone—anyone—who could help rescue their imploding bullpen, the supposed strength of the team with the offseason additions of sidearming righthander Joe Smith and closer Kerry Wood.

"We're going to watch him from outing to outing," Indians manager Eric Wedge said of the 6-foot-3, 180-pound Rondon, who features a whip for a right arm that allows for a silky-smooth delivery. "We want to see how he takes to it. For him to be an option for us this year, it has to be in the bullpen."

Rondon had been under a microscope before. He pitched in the Futures Game last summer as a member of the world team. Further, despite being one of the youngest players in the high Class A Carolina League in 2008, Rondon posted a 3.60 ERA while leading all Indians farmhands with 145 strikeouts in 27 starts.  

Those impressive numbers came in just Rondon's second full professional season after signing with the Indians in 2004 out of Venezuela. Rondon made 12 starts in the Dominican Summer League in 2005, then came to the U.S. the following year to make 11 starts in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

Sigh Of Relief

Yet on May 12, Rondon nervously sat through the first three innings of his originally-scheduled start as Akron hosted Bowie.

He quietly watched the early action from the bullpen, a much different view of the game than he was accustomed to as a starter pitching every fifth day.

Soon, Aeros pitching coach Ruben Niebla jogged out of the dugout and through the outfield, heading to the bullpen between innings to help get Rondon warmed up before entering the scoreless game in the fourth inning.

From the moment Rondon stepped on the mound, he did not appear to possess his trademark confidence and control.

In 34 1⁄3 innings as a starter, Rondon had struck out 32 batters and walked just six, rarely getting behind batters as he aggressively and quickly attacked the strike zone with a plus changeup and a fastball in the low- to mid-90s. That fastball is made even more deadly given its natural late life in the zone.

But while the 21-year-old struck out the first batter he faced in relief, he allowed three hits and a walk to the next five batters. He also allowed the first run of the game.

In his next inning of work, Rondon gave up two more runs on three more hits as his brief outing came to a close. He was tagged with his first loss of the season.

"I felt fine, I felt good," Rondon said a week later, with Niebla interpreting for him. "But it was a transition to not have worked on the side in between outings."

Rondon was a little better in his second relief appearance, giving up a run on one hit and a walk in only one inning of work.

"It wasn't a disaster by any stretch of the imagination," Niebla said. "There's no doubt that in time, he can make the transition successfully."

Back To The Start

But before Rondon could find a comfort zone in his new role, word was quickly sent to Akron to reinsert Rondon in the Aeros' rotation. 

"If coming out of the bullpen was what it was going to take, that was fine with me," Rondon said. "But I've always been a starter. It is the role I'm most comfortable with."

Indians farm director Ross Atkins said the organization wasn't discouraged by Rondon's relief work, despite pulling the plug on the brief experiment within the span of a week.

"We feel that with further development, a month from now, two months from now, or even next year, (Rondon) can transition to the major leagues as either a starter or a reliever," Atkins said.

Before the whirlwind of movement, Atkins made the short drive to Akron from Cleveland to take in a handful of Rondon's starts.

"He's a powerful and aggressive strike-thrower with a little bit of ease," Atkins said. "He really doesn't have to work too hard to get results. He commands the ball a little better each year, his slider is a little bit better each year and his velocity creeps up (ranging from 90-96 mph) a little each year. He also controls the running game and fields his position well."  

With such an electric fastball, Rondon was able to get away with not finishing his delivery and leaving the ball up a little bit in the lower minors. Atkins even suggested Rondon could get away with just throwing the fastball a majority of time at the Double-A level, as well.

But knowing Rondon will eventually need more in his repertoire, the Indians had Rondon begin the season at Akron with the goal of working on developing his offspeed pitches.

"When he has them, he will dominate," Atkins said. "When those secondary pitches come, he will fly."

With the big league club closing out May in last place in the American League Central, and with injuries to Anthony Reyes and Aaron Laffey, Rondon may land in Cleveland even sooner than expected. Maybe even as a starter.