Henning: It’s all on Bruce Rondon now to shape up

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Bruce Rondon walks into the clubhouse after being relieved during the eighth inning Sunday.

Detroit – There were no first, or second clues, concerning Bruce Rondon.

There was simply a rising pile of graphic evidence that the Tigers’ problematic relief pitcher needed time at Triple A Toledo – to pitch as well as ruminate about his career responsibilities.

Rondon was shipped to Toledo early Monday morning and replaced by a 22-year-old right-handed prodigy, Joe Jimenez, who has immense talent and zero big-league experience.

The decision was all but inevitable. Rondon had collapsed for a second consecutive time during Sunday’s unnecessary 7-5 loss to the Red Sox. This came after he gifted the Red Sox with a similar rally in Friday’s 2017 home opener.

It was apparent, probably to anyone who follows the Tigers, Rondon was in need of another Toledo tune-up. If not a pink slip. These acts have gotten a bit monotonous.

And if it weren’t for the arm and talent a 26-year-old man yet retains, the Tigers could easily have said sayonara to Rondon. Long ago.

It was clear following Sunday’s game that a demotion was coming. Tigers general manager Al Avila and pitching coach Rich Dubee headed into manager Brad Ausmus’ office as quickly as media departed Ausmus’ post-game briefing.

When clubhouse doors didn’t open Monday morning until 15 minutes after the customary time, the easy guess was Rondon had been ordered out and notified that his next game would be on behalf of the Mud Hens.

Avila, dressed in a bright three-piece blue suit, was standing next to a desk, behind which Ausmus sat as his boss notified media of the shuffle.

Henning: Tigers’ bullpen just needs to be competent

The GM said there was nothing physically wrong with Rondon’s arm. But he confirmed what most of us had noticed during spring camp. Rondon’s “conditioning” and his “weight,” as Avila mentioned, were more of an issue than even the fact Rondon’s fastball was cruising 3-4 mph beneath its normal high-octane level.

Avila explained how a player who always has been big could have hit 300-plus pounds.

Rondon was monitored during the offseason as all Tigers players are followed by the strength-and-conditioning operatives. He was, allegedly, doing fine. Then he left for the World Baseball Classic and weight that already had begun rising at the start of spring camp went into overdrive.

This recklessness is part of a pitcher’s profile. He returned to the Tigers two years ago after missing a season with Tommy John surgery and did not exactly exhibit a Boy Scout ethos.

The Tigers finally, in September, did the unprecedented – at least in modern-day Tigers history. They sent him home. They told him his work habits and team character were so bereft of big-league commitment that he must be exiled.

This was more than an indictment. It was a warning that he was in the process of squandering a precious vocation and the livelihood that comes from it.

Rondon, to his credit, practiced good citizenship last year. He pitched in 37 games. Had a 2.97 ERA and a far more impressive and more revealing WHIP of 0.96.

He seemed, at last, to be the pitcher at age 25 he was destined to be.

Then, this spring’s tumble.

He had to go. How long he stays there is, obviously, his decision. The Tigers want him to lose weight. To get back into game-shape, as if this fundamental obligation should be an issue.

If he shows some discipline there, and if his fastball dynamism returns, he can be back in Detroit. Soon, perhaps. And for a long, productive stay.

But it’s rather up to him.

Jimenez, of course, is the fans’ darling and the man they wanted on Detroit’s 25-man roster even ahead of Opening Day.

The feelings are valid. Jimenez is 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, has a 97-mph fastball, a change-up, and a slider – an essential pitch for him – that needs work.

He can twirl a string of 1-2-3 innings. That has been his habit in the minors.

But he was sent to Triple A for a reason. Big-league batters kill fastballs no matter how high the throttle. Jimenez had a rocky inning Saturday night – two walks, a hit, a strikeout, no runs. It was one of his few relative blemishes from the past three seasons.

Ausmus was careful Monday to say: “I caution you that this is some kind of answer” to the Tigers’ annual bullpen crises.

In fact, Blaine Hardy probably would have been the Tigers’ choice except that he is blocked from rejoining the team for 10 days following his option to Toledo last week.

And so, Jimenez got a wake-up call Monday morning with news he was headed to Detroit in time for a 1:10 p.m. game against the Red Sox.

“It’s not a perfect situation,” Ausmus said of the Jimenez call-up, “but we don’t live in a perfect world.”

No, it’s rather imperfect.

But you can, and must, make earnest attempts to improve, to not accept deficient answers and options.

That might be the disposition Rondon should adopt during what probably is his last chance to show the Tigers he belongs with them, or anywhere in the big leagues.

He is blessed with skills that deserve to be maximized. Throw that fastball, Bruce, the way you still can. It beats throwing away one’s profession.


Twitter @Lynn_Henning