As was always a possibility, the Tigers are prepared to start the season with a closer by committee. What was more unexpected is that it won’t be including Bruce Rondon, at least not to start out. Rondon was optioned to Toledo this morning, along with Luis Marte, meaning that barring a last-second injury, the Opening Day bullpen will consist of Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Brayan Villarreal, Al Alburquerque, Darin Downs, and Drew Smyly. This move probably shouldn’t be as controversial as it will probably end up being. If one of the other young relievers, such as Alburquerque or Downs, had the same performances as Rondon, it would be expected that they would get sent to Toledo. But because it happened to Rondon, things are perceived differently. While reading Jason Beck’s blog on the matter, this quote from Alex Avila caught my interest:
“Obviously [Tuesday] he was lights-out, but I think everybody has unrealistic expectations,” Avila said Wednesday. “I mean, every time he pitches, you guys ask how he did. It seems like everybody expects him to have a 1-2-3 inning with three strikeouts every inning. That’s never going to be the case.”
I really think the Tigers only have themselves to blame for people having unrealistic expectations. During the offseason, Dave Dombrowski hyped up Rondon to an extent I have never seen done with any player. The writers picked up on this and carried it into spring training. Avila himself isn’t completely innocent of it, having raved about Rondon’s pitches during early bullpen sessions. From all their talk about Rondon’s 100 MPH fastball and “wicked” breaking ball, a “1-2-3 inning with three strikeouts every inning” is exactly the sort of image that would form in most people’s minds.
But while many people were picturing the reincarnation of Joel Zumaya from the 2006 ALDS, the impression that Rondon gave me was one similar to pre-2012 Fernando Rodney. What I mean by that is that I got the sense there would be bouts of wildness and quite a few baserunners, but he got the job done most of the time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s different from what most people were expecting. His 4.41 ERA from winter ball is a bit deceptive because the bulk of it came from one outing where he gave up five runs in two-thirds of an inning, but a lot of his other innings consisted of allowing one baserunner (via a hit or walk) but retiring all the other batters. Therefore, my impression was of a pitcher who was effective, but not dominant. The only other time I had seen him was one outing in spring training last year, and it was very similar to the outing he had yesterday. Maybe some of it is that “closer mentality” that may or may not exist, where the closer struggles in non-save situations, but at this point it probably isn’t worth the risk. In the end, it does boil down to performance. He had a shaky spring, and closer of the future or not, it would not be fair to put him on the team ahead of Villarreal, Downs, or Alburquerque. They pitched better than he did, plain and simple, and they deserve to be on the team. But keep in mind, it’s a long season and the bullpen is not set in stone. If he goes to Toledo and mows down all the hitters there, I’m sure he’ll be called up before too long.
In the meantime, this gives someone else the opportunity to step up and show what they can do. I may have been skeptical of Rondon (at least right now), but at the same time, I was hesitant about the idea of the Tigers signing or trading for an established closer, because I feel like the answer is already on the team somewhere. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but there are a lot of talented pieces among the relievers and bringing someone else in from outside the organization would just push someone out who doesn’t deserve to be pushed out (Dave Dombrowski said as much during the offseason). It’s pretty well-known that Jim Leyland likes to have a set closer, so my gut feeling is that while the Tigers say they’ll go with closer by committee, it won’t be long before Leyland starts to rely on just one person. Who that will be, I don’t know. My guess is that Benoit, Coke, and Dotel will get the first crack at it because they’re the established veterans. Dotel has been a closer before and Coke’s impressive postseason is still fresh in everyone’s minds. I know people are hesitant about Benoit because of all the home runs he gave up last year, but that was such a surreal event that I can’t imagine it’s anything but a fluke. Villarreal and Alburquerque are untested in the ninth inning, but they’ve probably got the best raw talent of anyone in the bullpen, though Alburquerque still walks too many batters and Villarreal has had problems with tie games on the road (However, he was going to be a closer in winter ball before he got hurt). And so there you have five guys who are all capable of doing this job. In the end, it comes down to two simple things: Ability and execution. The Tigers have the ability. They just have to get the job done.