Henning: Rondon really might have made the difference

By Lynn Henning, The Detroit News

People will say too much can be made of one player, or in this case, one pitcher.

Not really. Not when it comes to Bruce Rondon, a shutdown reliever whose September 2013 injury cost the Tigers last year's World Series and might well have cost them a 2014 championship.

Rondon was a rookie in 2013 with a 100-mph fastball and a malevolent slider. He was throwing those pitches for strikes, as he had done on Labor Day in Boston when he torched the Red Sox and David Ortiz, the very team and batter who in the eighth inning of Game 2 in last year's American League Championship Series helped turn a 5-1 Tigers lead into a 6-5 nightmare.

The Tigers were a few batters from taking a 2-0 series lead and would have been coming home for a cleanup against a shell-shocked band of Red Sox. But in big part because Rondon was on the shelf with a forearm strain (and because Miguel Cabrera also was hurt), Game 2 got away, just as Games 1 and 2 in this year's Division Series at Baltimore were obliterated by Detroit's eighth-inning breakdowns.

You could argue that was also because there was no Rondon, who months after healing from his sore forearm tore a ligament in his throwing elbow and in March had Tommy John surgery.

There was rarely any suitable stand-in for Rondon, for the brand of back-end, blowaway reliever the Tigers either didn't sufficiently, or consistently, have last autumn or in 2014. In both cases those are shaping up as World Series that could easily have gone to Detroit had the bullpen not detonated.

Responsibility for these collective Motown gut-aches falls on Tigers roster architect, Dave Dombrowski, a general manager whose job is to build bullpens as sea-worthy as his starting rotations and to find replacement parts when there are breakdowns to match Rondon's.

Fixes were tried

Here's what Dombrowski and the Tigers have done in the past year, remembering that Rondon was properly expected to be one of those back-end blowtorches of the kind you've seen from the Royals and Orioles.

Eleven months ago, the Tigers signed Joe Nathan (1.39 ERA, 0.897 WHIP, 43 saves for Texas in 2013). He finished his 2014 season in Detroit with a 4.81 ERA and a sorry 1.534 WHIP.

Ten months ago, they signed Joba Chamberlain (an asset for the Yankees ahead of Tommy John surgery). He was good with the Tigers in early 2014 and too often a bad dice-roll afterward.

Three months ago, they traded for Joakim Soria (2.70, 0.87 WHIP in 35 games for the Rangers), who was hurt or sometimes mystifyingly bad after his arrival in Detroit.

Six weeks after they lost Rondon, the Tigers signed Joel Hanrahan, who was healing nicely from Tommy John surgery and who figured to be pitching by midseason (2.72 in 63 games with Pirates ahead of his 2013 surgery). But he was re-injured during rehabilitation and never got to Detroit.

They added Jim Johnson, who was a gamble and who proved as much during his misbegotten time here.

The point is, I'm not sure how much more could have been done to change 2014, even after Rondon went down and a bullpen began six months of off-and-on wobbles.

Bullpen never consistent

Unless, of course, you would have opted in July for what seemed here to be a mandate: get another reliever along the lines of Andrew Miller, which the Tigers nearly did ahead of losing him at the trade deadline to the Orioles and settling instead on David Price.

The choice to trade for Price, remember, was a hit across most of Tigers Nation's spectrum — from owner Mike Ilitch to a fan base that loved the idea of Price pitching alongside Max Scherzer at the top of Detroit's rotation.

And it was Price who pitched the brunt of a 3-0 shutout Sept. 28 that delivered to Detroit another Central Division flag. Price also is next season's protection against losing Max Scherzer to free agency, which was part of the thought process behind July's deal.

So, again, it's tough to have it both ways — they needed another starter, they needed another reliever — when Justin Verlander picked either a bad year to recover from a sports hernia or to show signs of aging, either of which left the Tigers looking for a kingpin rotation option they got in Price.

As for the bullpen performers, they never quite made sense in their inconsistency.

Nathan, based on his previous 13 seasons, should have been good for at least 2014. Soria, unless he left his pitching skills in a storage bin at Texas, should have been steady down the stretch even after he was hurt. How a pitcher like Chamberlain, now 29, could have been so good early and so frequently bad late is something of a mystery, even for a man with Chamberlain's background.

And yet here are realities that point to how Detroit was either part of, or not able to cope with, the changing nature of big league bullpens.

Of the 10 playoff teams in 2014, more than half finished the season with a different closer from the man who was working their ninth innings on Opening Day. That's a lot of commotion at the most important spot in a contending team's bullpen.

Bullpens always a gamble

But other teams were able to handle it. The Tigers were not. Why?

You could argue their domestic draft has failed to deliver bullpen arms. The counter-argument is that drafting relievers is rarely a worthwhile strategy. Notice, in fact, how the Orioles and Royals put together their barbed-wire bullpens:

Royals closer Greg Holland was drafted, but in the 10th round, where chances always are taken. Wade Davis, their eighth-inning man, came in a trade with James Shields. Kelvin Herrera, a 100-mph seventh-inning choice, was a homegrown pick from the Dominican Republic — in the fashion of former Tigers reliever Fernando Rodney. Or, as a corollary to Rondon, whom Detroit grabbed from Venezuela.

The Orioles do it with Zach Britton, who didn't cut it as a starter, with Darren O'Day (well-traveled and kudos to the Orioles for signing him cheap), with Miller (July trade), and with Tommy Hunter, another retooled reliever who couldn't pitch as a starter.

Bullpens are known across baseball as a casino game because they are. The Tigers have made their share of decent calls over the years (Todd Jones, Jose Valverde ahead of late 2012, Jamie Walker, Al Alburquerque, Joaquin Benoit, converting Joel Zumaya to relief ahead of his sad arm ills, etc.). But they picked a lousy time to have so few of their recent risks pay off.

That big inning against the Red Sox a year ago shouldn't have happened. Those awful eighth innings against the Orioles two weeks ago should probably have not happened, either, if only a person or two pitched to script.

And if a kid named Rondon is on hand either year, we're probably not having this conversation, or reflection. One pitcher with a modicum of help could have pulled it off, winning at least one World Series. If that's implying too much is riding on one arm, take one of the above away from Kansas City or Baltimore, and we might have had a different look to the 2014 ALCS, and to this year's eventual World Series champion.