December 3, 2012 at 10:10 pm

Lynn Henning: At the Winter Meetings

Tigers can roll dice with Bruce Rondon and his 100 mph-plus fastball

Baseball's winter meetings, Day 1
Baseball's winter meetings, Day 1: Lynn Henning sets up the Tigers' wish list in a report from Nashville.

Nashville, Tenn. — Skepticism is fine, particularly in baseball. The game is so merciless that even gifted, seasoned pitchers can get chewed up if they're off a tick with their fastball, or if they stray a tad from that one-lane highway known as the strike zone.

Why, then, do the Tigers insist Bruce Rondon, who turns 22 on Sunday, is ready to become their bullpen closer in 2013 without having tasted an hour of big-league life?

Why do the Tigers flout their fans, national baseball critics, ex-players, and probably Jose Valverde, and throw a kid into a pressure-cooker of a role that most recently ravaged Valverde, whose remains have yet to be claimed by another team following his October disintegration?

The answer arrives in two parts.

The kid is immensely talented. And, the Tigers saw enough command from Rondon at their highest three minor-league stops in 2012 to believe a guy with a 103-mph fastball and a vicious slider can shut down big-league batters and finish games.

Others are leery. The big leagues are another realm. Nerves can go haywire. And nervous pitchers, even one with Rondon's assault-rifle repertoire, can dissolve, along with a team's lead, during those ninth-inning monuments to stress.

Still, the Tigers are convinced Rondon can handle it.

And I would agree.

Here's why:

Rondon pitched in 52 games in 2012, from Lakeland (Single A) to Erie (Double A) to Toledo (Triple A). The key number isn't his cumulative earned-run average (1.53) but the number of hits he allowed in those 52 games and 53 innings: 32.

That's why the Tigers can, and probably will, live with the fact Rondon walks his share of batters: 26 in those 53 innings. More than the 66 victims he struck out, what makes Rondon so good is that his 100-mph fastball and ever-improving slider are difficult pitches to hit squarely.

Or, put another way: He can afford to walk a batter when he is even more likely to strike out the next guy or to break his bat and coax a weak ground ball.

Rondon is doing more of the same during his Venezuelan Winter League stint with Navegantes del Magallenes. In nine of his last 10 games, he has allowed zero runs. In nine of those games, spanning nine innings, he has allowed five hits, has walked two batters, and has struck out 12.

He has had one bad outing: Nov. 24 against La Guiara, where he gave up five hits, five runs, and walked a man in two-thirds of an inning that Rondon's lawyer is probably trying to expunge from his record.

It means he is indeed human. The Tigers understand that, as well. But what they're banking on, after years of watching Todd Jones and Valverde put a man or two on base ahead of a successful closeout, is that Rondon will be a reliable put-away artist whose blowtorch of an arm will incinerate any threat stemming from his walks.

"Guys have bad outings," Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers front-office chief and Rondon supporter, said last week. "It happens. If you think these guys are going to be perfect, even veteran guys, it isn't going to happen.

"You can handle a guy like Rondon even when you know he isn't going to succeed every time out. He's going to blow some games. He's going to have some bad games.

"But just because you have one established guy at every position does not necessarily make you better than having a young guy who can come in and help you. I think that's the mistake everyone makes."

This is where Dombrowski scores his points. You must be able to project in looking at young talent and your upcoming roster.

It is one thing to call up marginal help that you know will probably be of limited value: Quintin Berry, for example, or a young reliever such as Luis Marte.

But seven years ago the Tigers knew Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya had a chance, a very good chance, at making the club and making a difference. Same story a year ago with Drew Smyly.

All were essentially untested. But all were talents and players on which you could risk safe wagers. Rondon, who was nearly called to Detroit in September, is probably ahead of the above crew in terms of the Tigers' trust and in his capacity to make the team and perform regularly in 2013.

He is on especially firm ground when he has bail-out options in Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit, and Al Alburquerque, with Brayan Villarreal handling whatever seventh-inning vacancies might occur if one of the bullpen back-enders needs to rescue Rondon.

Fans aren't likely to be assuaged anymore than those sideline experts, in studios and in opposing front offices, who are convinced the Tigers yet need to sign a closer.

But I don't see it happening. Rondon is headed for a promotion. How he handles it will be for Tigers Nation, not to mention his bosses, a deliciously suspenseful saga.

Dave Dombrowski: You can handle a guy like (Bruce) Rondon even when you know he isn’t going to succeed every time out." / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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