January 25, 2013 at 4:00 pm

John Niyo

Bruce Rondon's time with Tigers could be now; Rick Porcello's could be borrowed

Detroit -- One year you're a can't-miss prospect in the game of baseball, the next you're a player who won't be missed.

Maybe it hasn't been that quick of a reversal for Rick Porcello's fortunes in Detroit — from potential to expendable, from hyped to hoping to stick around. After all, he has had four full seasons in the majors to prove himself with the Tigers. But there he was Thursday as the team kicked off its winter caravan at Comerica Park, proof positive things don't always work out.

And as Porcello stood there politely answering repetitive questions about rampant trade speculation it was hard not to wonder what the future holds for the next big thing seated at a table across the room. Bruce Rondon's the guy everyone's buzzing about now, the flamethrower with a triple-digit fastball whom even Justin Verlander says he can't wait to see pitch.

Four years ago, Porcello was the highly-touted prospect — a first-round pick with a huge rookie contract — preparing to make his debut. Now it's Rondon, the 22-year-old reliever with only nine appearances above Double A ball, who's heading to spring training as the presumptive Tigers closer and an intriguing mystery.

"I've just heard unbelievable things about him," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said, echoing the sentiments of just about everyone in the organization.

Said Porcello: "I've never seen him pitch. I heard he's a big power guy. But I'm looking forward to seeing him throw."

Porcello absorbs rumors

Whether he'll get that opportunity remains to be seen. Ever since the Tigers plunked down $80 million last month to re-sign free agent Anibal Sanchez, solidifying the top four in their starting rotation, Porcello has been viewed as trade bait.

He's only 24 — "I still feel pretty young," he laughed, when I asked him if he was starting to feel old amid all the hot-stove talk — but that only makes him easier to deal, from the perspective of the Tigers.

He's a durable, innings-eating starter who's under team control for three more seasons. At the moment, he's a groundball pitcher for a team that, uh, much prefers strikeouts. But if Porcello can ever find a slick-fielding infield and some consistency with his slider — that's been his primary goal again this offseason — he could be a mid-rotation starter for another team.

As for where that might be, though, he'd prefer not to think about it.

"Right now, I'm a Tiger and I'm ready to help this team win," he said. "And if anything changes, I'll adjust accordingly. … But the rumors and all the talk are just distractions. It can be challenging at times, for sure. But I wouldn't be doing my job if I was letting that stuff get to me and had my mind somewhere else."

Unproven talent

Mind you, Rondon was saying much the same thing Thursday, albeit through a translator.

"First and foremost, I wanted to prepare physically and mentally to get ready for the closer role," he said, when asked about dealing with what may be outsized expectations for 2013.

General manager Dave Dombrowski calls Rondon "a rare talent." But Dombrowski readily admits he's an "unproven" one, and there's still a chance he'll make a trade for a proven closer — maybe even in exchange for Porcello — to replace Jose Valverde, whom the Tigers let walk after last October's self-immolation in the playoffs.

The first question is whether he can corral a fastball that was clocked as high as 104 mph in the minors last season. Joaquin Benoit, who'll be Rondon's mentor and perhaps his setup man as well, says he'll keep reminding the rookie not to "overdo" it. ("I just want to try to get him to relax," Benoit laughed, "and not try to break the catcher's mitt.")

The more important question, though, is whether Rondon can control his emotions. He says he learned from Valverde about the need to "turn the page" after a bad outing or a blown save. He also says he loves the closer's role, but we'll have to wait and see if it loves him back.

Manager Jim Leyland says he's "going to spend a lot of time" with Rondon in spring training just to get a feel for how the baby-faced 6-foot-3, 265-pounder handles it all. But as Verlander put it Thursday, "I think you'll find out rather quickly whether he's got that gene in him or not."

"A fastball like his always plays in the major leagues, it doesn't matter where you're pitching," Avila agreed. "But the thing is, especially on a team that's expecting to go to a World Series and win, it's a big role. And it is a lot of pressure to put on a kid."

Thing is, though, they don't stay kids for long in this game. Just ask Porcello.

john.niyo@detnews.com

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Bruce Rondon is heading to spring training as the presumptive Tigers closer and an intriguing mystery. / Elizabeth Conley/Detroit News
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