Henning: Rondon is best hope to fix Tigers bullpen

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — It was deflating for the Tigers, and even sickening, when Joe Nathan left the mound Wednesday at Toledo after having felt something "pop" in his right throwing arm.

His first rehab appearance coming off a strained muscle ended after 10 pitches. And when you learn, as Nathan later was made aware, that you have torn a ligament and flexor pronator, season-ending surgery at age 40 can end a long, lustrous career.

What matters to a Tigers team playing for a championship is October's objective. In reality, not much should change with Nathan's departure, not of lasting consequence. The Tigers were hoping to get by with a significantly diminished version of Nathan, and that was going to be a stretch.

In reality, not much should change. Not of lasting consequence. The Tigers were hoping to get by with a significantly diminished version of Nathan, and that was going to be a stretch.

Already, he had lost his closer's job to Joakim Soria. The Tigers were obligated, diplomatically, to have manager Brad Ausmus say Nathan would return as closer. But there is no way that would have happened. Not the way Soria has been pitching.

In the merciless world of big league competition, you don't play political or sentimental games with the ninth inning. Soria has been exactly what the Tigers have been hunting — reliable, quick, clean closeouts — since Jose Valverde began unraveling in late 2012.

It's possible Nathan could have been of help as an occasional choice for late-inning cameos. Ausmus was right to say Wednesday, ahead of a frosty night game and 13-4 wipeout by the Yankees at Comerica Park: "We're a better bullpen with Joe in it."

That's fair to Nathan. That's fair to a man who might still have had enough two-seam fastballs, sliders, and pitching savvy to have provided occasional help.

Waiting for Rondon

But the real key to Detroit's bullpen solidifying is not Nathan, or even how Ausmus chooses his particular role-players.

It's more a matter of getting Bruce Rondon back to Detroit and into the flow.

Rondon has been dueling with biceps tendinitis. It arrived late in spring camp and he just now is beginning to find his way back. He threw a 15-pitch bullpen, all fastballs, Tuesday at Lakeland, Fla. It tells you that even if Rondon stays on schedule he will not return to Detroit until at least mid-May.

That leaves the Tigers minus an arm they can trust in the fashion of Soria to vaporize would-be rallies. Angel Nesbitt is very close to being that person, but his youth (24 and a rookie) compels everyone to wait and see if he can sustain it for weeks and months ahead.

Al Alburquerque, Joba Chamberlain, Ian Krol, Tom Gorzelanny, Blaine Hardy, have been more risky. And that's not terribly reassuring when they – Krol was replaced Thursday by right-hander Alex Wilson, summoned from Triple A Toledo -- are more than 70 percent of Ausmus' current relief corps.

Reality strikes

Detroit's bullpen had, for the most part, been holding up beautifully the first 13 games. But there was something of a false front there. Starters had been going deeply into games and the bridge between those first seven or eight innings and the ninth was a short one. Often it wasn't needed.

Tuesday against the Yankees, Ausmus had to reach earlier for reserves and, kaboom, a seventh inning blew up and Detroit lost its third game of a young season.

"Like every team, we need a bullpen," Ausmus said before Wednesday's game. "I hope last night wasn't indicative."

It might not be. But whether the bullpen remains an issue, or proves to be an eventual plus, the outcome never did depend upon Nathan.

It hinges, rather, on a 24-year-old pitcher who can commandeer innings.

His name: Rondon. His status: recovering at the Lakeland complex. His value: indispensable to a team's 2015 hopes.