Rondon clearly on the fast track toward success
Tigers' prospect is a real flamethrower as he tries to nail down the closer's job
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Go ahead, try to tell Bruce Rondon he shouldn't be a closer on a World Series team. He has heard worse.
After all, this is the kid somebody thought shouldn't be pitching at all.
Major League teams search the world for the next prodigy with a golden arm and a 100-mph fastball. The Tigers found theirs wearing catching gear in Venezuela. He was being showcased to teams as a strong-armed backstop.
Tigers scout Miguel Garcia gave him a choice: a big catcher who struggles to hit, or a hard-throwing pitcher with a better chance at the big leagues.
Rondon already wanted to be a pitcher. He had pitched when he was younger. Asked earlier this week why he was catching, he smiled.
"Threw too hard," Rondon said through a translator.
He did throw hard, Royals catcher and fellow Valencia resident Salvador Perez remembered. He also threw a little wild.
"We played in the Little League together, for different teams when we were about 12 to 14 years old," Perez said. "I remember he pitched and he threw hard. Not good command, but he threw hard. But he was just 12 years old and now he's better."
Rondon's good enough now that he has a chance to take the ball in the ninth inning for the defending American League champions. To some, it's the one big question on a team without a clear weakness, an experiment that could leave them scrambling if it doesn't work. To others, it's a chance to unleash a potentially great closer with a 103-mph fastball on a team strong enough to support his on-the-job training.
Either way, it has become one of the most intriguing storylines of Spring Training. For the 22-year-old pitcher, it's a potential dream come true through confidence, coaching and an interest from the man whose job he could soon inherit.
"It would be unbelievable," Rondon said.
In some ways, it already is.
Bringing the heat early on
The Tigers have a history of seeking out lesser-scouted talent in Venezuela rather than competing for more-publicized prospects. They signed no fewer than six teenagers from Venezuela in 2007. Avisail Garcia, last year's late-season hero, was one. Francisco Martinez, part of the Doug Fister trade in 2011, was another.
So was Rondon, signed in September after most top prospects had signed in the summer. At age 16, he was throwing in the upper 80s.
All those prospects made for a talented last-place team in the Venezuelan Summer League the next summer. Rondon hit 10 batters in 55 innings with 20 walks, 34 strikeouts and nine wild pitches. He was throwing in the mid-90s, Avisail Garcia remembers, but dreaming bigger.
"He was working hard," Garcia said. "When he was in the summer league, he said, 'I want to throw 100 one day. One day.' I was laughing and I said, 'No way.' And now he throws 102."
Fast track to success
One-oh-two was the number that introduced a national audience to Rondon. It was the radar reading at Kauffman Stadium at the All-Star Futures Game last July. He hit 101 mph three other times in his brief appearance.
Even for those who had heard of Rondon, it was an eye-opener. Until then, his fastball was largely the stuff of reports. Rondon says friends told him after a Florida State League game against the Tampa Yankees last year that he hit 104 mph.
"A hundred and four sometimes," Perez agreed. "He throws like Kelvin Herrera."
Rondon's pitching coach in Lakeland, Mike Maroth, recalls seeing 102 regularly.
"You were pretty much guaranteed to see 100 every time he stepped out on the mound," Maroth said.
That was Lakeland. This was Kansas City, against baseball's top prospects. For Rondon, it was like a Major League debut.
"This is what I dream about," he said after that game. "This is what I want, my family wants and everybody who loves me wants. I am so happy and I'm healthy. What else can I ask for?"
The journey there was about more than miles per hour. The Tigers watched Joel Zumaya throw 100 every game in 2006 and hit 103 at the Metrodome.
Rondon didn't just throw hard; he pitched. The latter took a few years.
"It's a big process to learn how to pitch," Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila said.
Rondon credits coaches who worked with him along the way. Maroth credits Rondon's work ethic and his willingness to learn. He also, of course, credits the arm.
He was raw as a pitcher, but he was a pitcher they could work with.
"The thing is, it doesn't look like it's that hard because he throws so free and easy," Maroth said. "He's not a max effort guy. The ball just jumps out."
Maroth got Rondon last year after he mowed down Midwest League hitters at a 3:2 ratio of strikeouts to innings at West Michigan. People in the organization began to take notice. One was Jose Valverde, the Tigers' closer.
Valverde shows the way
A short drive from Joker Marchant Stadium is a small restaurant that serves Dominican food and other Latin cuisine. Fernando Rodney used to take younger players there when he was with the Tigers. Valverde would buy food and take it to youngsters in Minor League camp during Spring Training.
For all the attention Valverde's theatrics drew, his work with younger players went unnoticed.
"He was one of the more impressive guys that way," Tigers international scouting director Tom Moore said. "He was one guy you'd consistently see around the complex. And he took Bruce under his wing."
That's why Rondon mentions Valverde among the closers he has admired and emulated. In some ways, he was a role model.
Rondon said they'd talk during Spring Training, but that they also chatted on the phone during the season. They talked about maintaining focus, about going into a game with a plan for the hitters he was facing, about his future.
Rondon took that focus into games last year and went from a closer of the future to the closer in waiting, and potentially Valverde's replacement.
Getting bad against Vlad
Of all the Rondon moments Maroth saw, his best might have been the night Rondon faced Vladimir Guerrero, once the quickest bat in baseball, trying a comeback with the Blue Jays.
"He didn't throw a pitch under 100 until he threw one of the best sliders I've seen him throw," Maroth said.
Rondon's next pitch was a 101 mph fastball that Guerrero grounded to first.
"When he was called to kind of step up his game, he was able to do it," Maroth said.
As quickly as top prospect Nick Castellanos made it out of Lakeland, Rondon wasn't far behind, striking out 34 batters in 23 1/3 innings with 12 hits and 10 walks. He did much the same at Double-A Erie before making the Futures Game.
"When he tried to close the game, I always relaxed in center field or right field," Avisail Garcia said, "because he throws so hard. Nobody could hit it."
The way he hid his changeup, it was just about as tough.
"He's not just a one-pitch pitcher," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said.
By August, Rondon was pitching at Triple-A Toledo and being considered for a potential September callup in Detroit. Just-optioned Duane Below was behind the plate charting pitches with a radar gun for the Mud Hens against Louisville when Rondon faced an infielder named Chris Vailaika. Below said he saw Rondon start him off at 101 mph, then bury a slider.
Below checked the next pitch and saw 103. It was a called third strike for a game-ending strikeout.
Below's reaction: "That was fun to watch."
Reds farmhand Denis Phipps played in that game, and just missed facing Rondon.
"He's like [Aroldis] Chapman," Phipps said, "but a righty."
What stood out to catcher Bryan Holaday was how easy Rondon was to catch. Holaday could put his mitt where he wanted the pitch and follow it into the pocket nearly every time.
The wild-throwing teenager, once converted to catcher, was now a catcher's best friend.
"There's a reason why he's jumping up through the organization," Holaday said. "When you go to lower levels, you have the guys who throw that hard, but they just have no feel for it."
In the end, the Tigers didn't have a September role for a short-work reliever, Dombrowski said. They had a role at season's end when Valverde became a free agent.
"This guy is a special potential closer with the makeup of a closer," Dombrowski said then. "Normally you're not going to thrust that in a young guy's hands and say automatically, 'It's your job.' But it would not surprise me if he earned that job."
Working to get better
Rondon is not an anointed closer. Manager Jim Leyland has spent Spring Training talking, watching, trying to get an idea how he'll react to Major League pressure.
His teammates have been getting an idea about him, too. With Valverde gone, Octavio Dotel and Joaquin Benoit have taken his role.
"The good thing is, he listens," Dotel said. "And even though he knows what he has, he doesn't act like, 'I'm the man,' or whatever. He listens. He wants to get better."
The key piece of advice from Dotel, the lesson he knows now that he wishes he knew when he came up, is to relax and control the adrenaline.
Those who know Rondon don't expect that to be a problem.
"He's carefree," Castellanos said. "He's confident in what he has. He's always having fun with his friends. If he has a bad outing, he gets mad for a little bit, but then he forgets it real fast. That's a big reason why I think he's had such good success."
But then, other than the Futures Game, he hasn't faced a Major League environment. He hasn't tried to finish off a Justin Verlander gem with a contending team's hopes, a family, even the attention of his home city riding on it.
The Tigers can try to figure out how he'll handle it, but it's an educated chance, just like the one they took on that teenage catcher six years ago.
Salvador Perez is already preparing for it. The Royals and Tigers meet in late April at Comerica Park.
"I'll be looking for the fastball," Perez said.