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Rondon could fill bill as Tigers' new closer

DETROIT -- Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski has made a tradition out of his end-of-season conferences with reporters. It's the time when he lays out a rough blueprint of the club's offseason plans without getting too specific on names.

His penchant for picking out a prospect who could make an impact the next year isn't so much a tradition as it is a habit. Three years ago, it was Scott Sizemore as the potential everyday second baseman. Last year, it was Jacob Turner filling out the rotation. Neither ended up filling their projected roles, though injuries hampered their development.

If the Tigers' bullpen comes together the way Dombrowski envisions it, this week's conference will be the one where Bruce Rondon hit the Major League radar -- figuratively, at least. In reality, his 102-mph fastball lit up the radar at Kauffman Stadium in July at the All-Star Futures Game.

It's the big frame -- he's listed at 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds -- and bigger fastball that get attention, more than any reliever to come out of the Tigers' system since Joel Zumaya six years ago. It's getting Dombrowski thinking that Rondon might be more than a Tigers reliever next spring. He could be the closer.

"I would not discount Bruce Rondon in the competition for our closer role for next year," Dombrowski said at his news conference on Tuesday. "I'm not saying he's going to be our closer, but I do not discount him in that role."

Far from discounting him, Dombrowski touted him, more than any prospect mentioned on Tuesday. In so doing, he made Rondon, ranked as the Tigers' No. 3 prospect by, a name to watch.

The Tigers haven't had a rookie in the full-time closer role since Franklyn German shared the saves lead for the 2003 Tigers -- with five. Only one Tiger has reached double digits in saves in his first Major League season; Michigan native Mike Marshall saved 10 games in 1967 as part of a bullpen by committee.

Other teams have used rookies as closers quite well, especially Oakland, but history shows the Tigers just haven't done it. Other than setup man Fernando Rodney's turn at closer in 2009, manager Jim Leyland's Detroit teams have all had seasoned closers going into the year. And even that 2009 club signed Brandon Lyon off a 26-save season before Rodney beat him out for the job.

Between a Tigers team already looking at big payroll obligations and a young reliever charging up the development system, next year could be the season Dombrowski takes a shot. It doesn't mean he will -- he talked about internal candidates to close in 2010, after all, before Jose Valverde lingered on the free-agent market into mid-January -- but just considering the soon-to-be 22-year-old right-handed fastballer is a sign.

"You see [Aroldis] Chapman close [in Cincinnati] and there's been other young guys close for clubs. I know it hasn't been our normal situation," Dombrowski said. "People know how good an arm Zumaya had, this guy has every bit [as good of an arm] and it comes out easier with less effort in his delivery ...

"This guy is a special potential closer with the makeup of a closer. 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. With the number of good arms that are out there, there are not many arms like this, and he cherishes that type of role."

The Tigers signed Rondon as a teenager out of Venezuela in 2007, the same summer in which they signed Avisail Garcia. He saved 36 games at three different levels in 2010-2011, including 19 at low Class A West Michigan last year. His fastball was already there, making for unhittable stuff for low-level Minor League hitters. The control was a work in progress.

Rondon gave up just 35 hits over 72 1/3 innings in that two-year stretch, racking up 84 strikeouts. However, he walked 50 batters. The best hope for hitters was to not swing the bat.

That changed this year, and the results were impressive. So was the rise up the system.

Rondon dominated hitters in the Florida State League over the first half of the season, did much the same at Double-A Erie and didn't look back. He allowed just 32 hits over 53 combined innings, eight of them in an August stint at Triple-A Toledo, with 66 strikeouts. Most important, he finally allowed fewer walks than hits, issuing 26 passes. Seven of them came at Toledo as he adjusted to veteran Triple-A hitters. As important as his fastball is, Dombrowski said, he located his breaking ball for strikes.

The Futures Game appearance was his showcase.

"He's a rare talent," Dombrowski continued. "You would not believe the number of clubs that called me about Bruce Rondon to trade him. If I had a choice of any young closer in baseball to give an opportunity to in any organization, it would be him. Now would he be ready? I don't know that. But he is that good."

The Tigers parted ways with Turner in July, knowing their rotation plans for the future, but they held onto Rondon.

As much as Dombrowski praised Rondon, the question had to be raised why he wasn't part of the Tigers' late-season roster.

"We really, really, seriously thought of, before the 1st of September, if we should bring him up and let him join us for the postseason," Dombrowski said. "And probably, if I'd have known how things were going to go with Valverde at that point, we would have done that, but I did not anticipate the struggles during the postseason. Otherwise, we didn't really have a role because we had a lot of other good arms out there."

All of those arms are staying put. If the Tigers don't add an established closer, Leyland will have the opportunity to mix and match. Even Leyland, however, hinted that Rondon could win it.

"Who's to say we won't have a closer? I think we will have a closer. I think it might be a surprise closer, but I think we might have one," Leyland said. "Rondon's a good name.

"Believe me, I'm not putting my blessing on Rondon as a closer for next year, but I'm just mentioning that name as a possibility. When you've got an arm like that, that's a possibility. Now, could he handle it mentally, could he handle it in a three-tier stadium with the bright lights? I don't have a clue."

That's what the Tigers have to project, and there's no way to do that in Spring Training. If the Tigers open Rondon in a non-closing role, that might be the biggest factor.

The other factor the Tigers can't project is how free agency will play out. In the past two days alone, Rafael Soriano, Ryan Madson and Joakim Soria all hit the open market with options declined. Soriano had a career season in New York in the wake of Mariano Rivera's injury, while Madson and Soria both missed this season with injuries.

The Tigers might yet add somebody after the holidays. At this point, however, it's not a top priority.

"It would have to really be the right scenario, right situation, guys fall through, where the dollars are spent, who else we sign, how much we spent, because it's not going to be something we do right away," Dombrowski said.

Detroit Tigers, Avisail Garcia, Bruce Rondon, Jose Valverde