Continuing from this morning's season preview of the Detroit Tigers…
Just what are the Tigers going to do with their closer's job if Bruce Rondon doesn't grab the bull by the horns?
The Tigers seem to be going with Rondon to start the year, and we touched on why their hesitation to go with Rondon is their fault after playing coy with the closer's job this offseason, letting Jose Valverde walk and standing pat with the rest of their bullpen. But Rondon has caused some concern going into the season as he's struggled this spring, throwing the back-end of Detroit's bullpen into a state of chaos if Rondon continues to struggle once the games that matter begin.
Detroit has a vastly experienced bullpen past Rondon, though. The team isn't somehow screwed if their flamethrowing rookie isn't ready for the majors. Aside from Rondon, the team has Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, and Joaquin Benoit with closing experience, while Al Albuquerque and Brayan Villarrealy possess live arms like Rondon does. There are clearly plenty of internal options that the Tigers can go with if Rondon struggles as opposed to trading for a "proven" closer or blowing more money on a free agent option.
But see, here's the thing: Rondon's struggles could be behind him already after a rough start to the spring. In his last three appearances, after taking five days off after the Braves beat him up at the beginning of the month, Rondon has struck out four hitters without walking one in three innings. Sure, all three of those appearances have come against a weak Mets offense, but it's a vast improvement compared to his first few appearances of the spring, when Rondon walked five hitters and struck out six in 3 2/3 innings.
And therein lies the problem with scouting boxscores, especially during spring training. Albuquerque struck out 11 and walked four in seven innings. Benoit has struck out eight and walked two in seven innings. Villarreal has struck out eight and walked three in six innings. Coke has struc out five and walked two in seven innings. Is any one of those pitchers definitively looking better than any other? For all we know, one of those guys could be playing around with a new pitch. There really aren't a lot of conclusions you can draw from just looking at stat lines in the spring.
At any rate, the Tigers should be in good shape if they feel Rondon isn't ready to take on a high-pressure role in the majors to start the 2013 sason. After all, he has thrown just 29 2/3 innings above high-A, and has struggled with his control every step of the way. Then again, Craig Kimbrel also had control issues during nearly all of his minor league career (while striking out bucketloads more hitters than Rondon), and he's now one of the best closers in the game…after a full season AAA. Maybe that's the best course of action for the Tigers in 2013: let Rondon start the year with Toledo and go from there. After all, their bullpen is strong enough where they don't desperately need Rondon in the pen this season, especially if Villarreal and Albuquerque continue to show progress this spring.