Tigers have few holes and may look to Rondon to fill one of them
They are the defending American League champions, a team loaded with superstars, from Mr. Triple Crown to The Best Pitcher in Baseball, and their mighty lineup will be even better with the return of Victor Martinez and the addition of Torii Hunter. The rotation is the deepest in the American League, and maybe in all of baseball -- the No. 4 starter, Anibal Sanchez, could be a front of the rotation starter on many teams. The Tigers, with the star-studded $120 million roster, are in win-now mode -- after losing to the Giants last October, it's World Series or bust in 2013.
And yet . . . the season in Detroit might very well come down to a 22-year-old pitcher who has never thrown a pitch in the majors. Gone is the man who saved 110 games over the last three years, the eccentric, maddening Jose Valverde -- but, Tigers faithful, don't put away the Dramamine just yet. Your team will now be turning to Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit or Al Alburquerque -- or the most intriguing of the new closer options, Bruce Rondon, the most scrutinized player in camp this spring.
After one exhibition game, a reporter asked manager Jim Leyland about his baby-faced closer in waiting. "That's the first time that question has been asked all spring," Leyland quipped, and everyone in the room laughed.
Of course, all everyone wants to talk about this spring in Tigertown is Detroit's precarious closer situation and Rondon, the 6-3, 260-pound intimidator with a triple digit fastball. The Tigers aren't committing to him as their closer just yet, but it's obvious that they believe the rookie righthander has the most upside in the role.
"His fastball is so good it gets all the play, but it's not like he's just a one-pitch pitcher," says Detroit's general manager, Dave Dombrowski. "We think he could fill the role because of the consistent development of his breaking ball and his changeup -- those have become good pitches for him."
During the Tigers' World Series run a year ago, with Valverde ineffective in the ALDS, it was Coke who took on closing duties, and the lefty was nearly perfect -- he saved two games in the ALCS -- before he allowed the go-ahead run to San Francisco in Game 4 of the World Series. Coke would seemingly be the first option the Tigers would turn to if they don't believe Rondon is ready. Rondon had a rocky spring. but it's clear Leyland wants to at least give him a shot to succeed in the role.
But is he really ready to be The Man on a championship team? The Tigers have faith. "Some guys want the ball in the ninth inning, and nothing will intimidate them," says Dombrowski. "I've never seen Bruce Rondon intimidated."
The Tigers were able to address two big weaknesses -- rightfield and team defense -- with the signing of the Hunter. He may be 37, but Hunter is coming off a season in which he posted a WAR of 5.5, as measured by Baseball-Reference.com, the highest of his career.
No, Papa Grande wasn't nearly as good as the gaudy saves totals over his three seasons in Detroit suggest -- he was a lost cause once he lost his splitter -- but his departure does leave a void at the back end of the bullpen.
Aside from Justin Verlander, there's another Cy Young candidate in the rotation in Max Scherzer, who was 8-2 with a 2.65 ERA over the second half. "There's no reason why Max can't put up those numbers of a full season," says Dombrowski. "We expect a big year from him."
While it should be improved with the addition of Hunter and a full season from Omar Infante, the defense, which ranked 13th in the league in defensive efficiency and UZR, will still be a problem as long as Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera are manning the corners.
There will be anxious nights with the bullpen and leaky defense, but the lineup has too much firepower and the starting pitching is just too good: the Tigers, clear favorites in a mediocre AL Central, should waltz all the way to October. Unless, that is, the bullpen implodes.