Rondon will get opportunity in Tigers' bullpen

Right-hander worked back into high-leverage situations in '16

December 15th, 2016

DETROIT -- Omar Vizquel is interested in adding to his bullpen for Team Venezuela in the upcoming World Baseball Classic. But he wants to see Rondon motivated for the opportunity.
"I think we will judge the decision on the condition that the player is in," Vizquel, who will manage the team, said during the Winter Meetings. "If you're ready to play and be considered, you're going to be on the team. If we find a guy that we think is going to do a better job, then we're going to have to pick that guy. Because it's not the Detroit Tigers. It's not the Marlins. It's not Minnesota. It's Venezuela. And we have a coaching staff that is ready and prepared to make decisions too along with the manager and the committee of the team."
If that sounds familiar, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus had similar remarks a day later when asked where Rondon fits into his bullpen.
"After the end of 2015, he did a nice job of coming in and working hard, kind of reestablished himself as a very able back-end bullpen type pitcher," Ausmus said, "but he's got to keep doing it. You can't just do it for two-thirds of a season at a Major League level. You think you've proved to everyone that you are what you are supposed to be, and now you have to keep doing it.
"He has to keep doing the same thing from Day 1 next year. He needs to come in in shape and stay in shape like he did last year, and the bottom line is performance in the game. He's going to have to pitch."
If there was any concern about a unified message towards the talented but enigmatic reliever, there shouldn't be. The challenge is there. But so is the opportunity.
After an up-and-down 2015 season that ended early when he was sent home in mid-September for effort level, Rondon pitched his way back into meaningful situations this past season with better focus and inconsistency. His .181 average against, .234 average in balls put in play and 0.963 WHIP ratio (Walks And Hits Per Inning Pitched) led the team, albeit over just 36 1/3 innings.
Rondon has been known throughout his career for throwing hard and, in turn, throwing wild. But while his average velocity dropped a half-tick from 97.7 mph in 2015 to 97.2 this year, according to Fangraphs, he gained control. Rondon threw 65.3 percent of his pitches for strikes, the highest strike rate of his career. His first-pitch strike percentage of 58.6 was easily the best of his career. He put more than a third of his batters into 0-2 counts, setting himself up for 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings and a 3.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Instead of lighting up the radar gun, Rondon put his focus on shutting down hitters.
"People love the radar gun," Ausmus said. "You show me a guy that throws a hundred, I can show you a hitter that can hit it. There are other things that go into it. You have to have the ability to control your emotions on the mound, especially in save situations. You have to have an offspeed pitch, a swing-and-miss pitch. You can't be afraid to make a mistake even though the game is on the line."
Of course, all of that happened after mid-June. Rondon opened the season at Triple-A Toledo, where his 1.80 WHIP ratio was nearly double what he posted in the big leagues -- thanks in part to 16 walks over 21 2/3 innings. He shouldn't have to worry about a return to the Mud Hens, since he's out of Minor League options in 2017. But as Ausmus pointed out, Rondon will have to perform for a full season in order to earn a role.
If Rondon can do that, the opportunity is evident. While is set to return as closer at age 35, the right-handed setup role is wide open. Joe Jimenez, widely viewed as the Tigers' closer of the future, isn't there yet, and is expected to open the season in Toledo. There's a window for Rondon to make an impression and turn his vast potential into actual performance at age 26, but he has to begin in camp, physically and mentally ready.
The disappointing ending to 2015 is behind Rondon. Still, the bigger challenge is ahead.