Clearwater, Fla. — Manager Jim Leyland acknowledged Tuesday the Tigers' baby-steps approach with closer candidate Bruce Rondon could initially make Rondon part of a back-end bullpen mix.
Such an arrangement would allow the Tigers to pick more comfortable spots in which to break in their 22-year-old fireballer. Rondon has not thrown a pitch in a big-league, regular-season game.
"It's possible — yes," Leyland said an hour before the Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies were to meet at Bright House Field.
"That's a good question. And a very good answer. But it only means 'possible.'"
Rondon has been spring camp's most serious ongoing issue for a Tigers team that otherwise does not have an established ninth-inning fireman. Rondon's fastball is a high-throttle model that can hit 102 mph. It makes him an automatic attraction to teams that prefer strikeout pitchers when protecting a lead in an opposing team's last at-bat.
Rondon, though, has had an awkward spring camp. He has a 4.76 earned-run average in 5-2/3 innings spanning six appearances. He has walked five batters, struck out nine, and allowed nine hits.
He has settled down following a week on the sideline and has not walked a batter in his last two appearances. But neither has Rondon displayed command of secondary pitches Leyland and the Tigers understand must be part of Rondon's repertoire, even when his fastball incinerates a batter at 101 mph, as it did in Monday's game against the New York Mets.
"I want to see people swing and miss at his breaking ball once in a while," said Leyland, who has seen Rondon's slider become a less comfortable option than his fastball or his change-up. "I want to make clear: I like what I've seen. I'm not really shocked by what I've seen.
"I'm thrilled about it (Rondon's audition). I have no qualms about it. I'm very positive about it and I think it will work out fine."
Leyland, though, could be in a bind even if he decides to use Rondon as more of a mix-and-match reliever until Rondon proves he is ready for regular ninth-inning work.
Adding him to a seven-man relief corps could mandate another capable reliever would be left off the 25-man active roster. The Tigers are looking at Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke, Brayan Villarreal, and probably Darin Downs, as six relievers all but certain to make the team.
Rondon, if he is judged to be worthy, would give Leyland his quota of seven relievers. But that group is minus a long reliever the team is certain to carry.
Downs is the second left-hander the Tigers likewise believe they need. It's a discussion the Tigers will almost certainly carry on ahead of the team's departure for Minnesota on March 30.
"I don't think that question is going to be answered," Leyland said of his eventual bullpen mix, "until right to the wire."
Bruce Rondon has been spring camp’s most serious ongoing issue for a Tigers team that otherwise does not have an established ninth-inning fireman. / Robin Buckson/Detroit News
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