After enduring another rocky season with Jose Valverde, and watching their veteran closer struggle through September before imploding in the playoffs, the Tigers seemed inclined to pass on their ninth-inning job to rookie Bruce Rondon. The 34-year-old Valverde remains unemployed, but if the early returns are any indication, Rondon may not be ready to fill his shoes.
Tigers to give struggling Rondon a break; not pursuing Jose Valverde
Armed with a triple-digit fastball and a sharp slider, Rondon has had little trouble missing bats this spring, with six strikeouts to his name through 3 2/3 innings of work. Unfortunately, he has missed the zone even more often than he has missed opponents’ bats, issuing five walks over that brief span. Add in five hits, including a home run, and 10 of the 21 hitters who have stepped into the box against Rondon have made their way to first base or beyond.
Four appearances into his trial, the Tigers have decided to give the 22-year-old a breather. Pitching coach Jeff Jones told Detroit Free Press beat writer John Lowe that he spotted “a couple things that he is doing differently” while reviewing video of Rondon’s recent outings, and he is hopeful that the portly northpaw can improve his command and control by eliminating those mechanical flaws. Rondon is expected to resume his regular spring schedule immediately after the bullpen session with Jones, so we should soon see whether the third-year pitching coach has truly found the cure.
Regardless, questions about Rondon’s ability to step into the closer role are likely to persist into April, if manager Jim Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski don’t find an excuse to pull the plug. Hudson Belinsky, who profiled Rondon last August, drew mixed opinions from evaluators on his big-league ceiling. Some thought that Rondon’s electric stuff could mask his iffy control, but others cautioned that he might be better utilized as a set-up man—a role in which a more proven reliever would be available to clean up any late-inning messes that his bloated walk rate might create.
Still, according to CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, who spoke directly with Dombrowski over the weekend, the Tigers are committed to giving the rookie a fair shot and are showing no interest in external reinforcements. If Leyland’s bullpen looks the same in four weeks as it does today, then his best alternative to Rondon would likely be a matchup-based approach, with Joaquin Benoit or Octavio Dotel tackling right-handed hitters and Phil Coke spelling them versus lefties. Leyland debunked a report from New York Post columnist Joel Sherman, suggesting that he was campaigning for Dombrowski to bring back Valverde, in a rambling statement to reporters. The gist of Leyland’s position: Valverde should have secured a new deal by now, but that does not mean he will get it from the Tigers.
Leyland added in his Monday afternoon press conference, which came on the heels of the decision to have Rondon skip an appearance, that Detroit’s save opportunities are up for grabs. In his view, Rondon’s audition is part of a larger battle for the job—a true position battle, rather than one with a presumed winner, as some have reported the situation to be.
Regardless of the true landscape in Lakeland, Florida, the Tigers are unlikely to take any significant measures to remedy the situation before giving Jones a chance to fix Rondon’s mechanics. If he succeeds in doing so, all of this could become a nonstory. If he fails, the pressure—some of it perhaps from owner Mike Ilitch—to welcome back Valverde or find another experienced closer could begin to mount by the end of the week.
Rangers interested in Rick Porcello
Although the closer situation is in the spotlight, the Tigers are also monitoring two candidates to round out their rotation: the righty-handed Porcello and southpaw Drew Smyly. And if Smyly, who has tossed five shutout innings over two trips to the mound this spring, proves trustworthy, Dombrowski will have no shortage of suitors for Porcello.
One of those interested teams, according to ESPN New York’s Adam Rubin, are the Rangers, whose rotation competition is going far less swimmingly. After allowing three runs over four innings in his first two Grapefruit League starts, Porcello fanned six in four shutout frames on Monday, enhancing his stock to the greatest extent that any one March outing can. And the Rangers, who were dealt a blow on Sunday, when their own projected fifth starter, Martin Perez, suffered a fractured forearm, almost certainly were paying attention.
Even in the wake of Perez’s injury, general manager Jon Daniels and other members of the front office in Arlington remain reluctant to sign Kyle Lohse. Despite reports that agent Scott Boras’ asking price for the former Cardinal had dropped in recent days, FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal heard from an actively involved source that the going rate is still a three-year hitch with “big” annual paychecks. Factor in the draft-pick cost, which for the Rangers would mean surrendering the 24th-overall selection, and it’s easy to see why the younger and less expensive Porcello might be a more attractive option.
Moving from Detroit to Texas could also benefit Porcello, whose ground-ball tendencies are a poor fit in front of an infield that features Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera at the corners. The Tigers ranked 27th in the majors in ground-ball defensive efficiency, coughing up a .254 average to their opponents, and that bloated mark contributed to Porcello’s .344 BABIP. The Rangers, by contrast, placed in the middle of the pack with a .238 batting average against on grounders, and should improve with Michael Young’s (-2.6 FRAA) departure.
The Tigers probably won’t trade Porcello unless they are absolutely certain that Smyly can hold down the number-five gig for the duration of the season. If Smyly falters or one of the other starters requires a stint on the disabled list, Leyland could be forced to use either Casey Crosby or Shawn Hill, who have endured a long list of health woes themselves. Swingman Duane Below made 26 of his 27 major-league appearances last year as a reliever, and minor-league addition Jose Alvarez is the only other rotation candidate on Jason Martinez’s depth chart.
The lack of reliable depth should give Dombrowski pause in negotiations, even if Daniels or another counterpart is able to cobble together an adequate offer. Those hoping to buy low on Porcello, who is owed $5.1 million in 2013 and is under team control (via arbitration) through the 2015 season, are likely to find the asking price difficult to meet. And, though Porcello has been the subject of trade rumors throughout the offseason, he seems as strong a bet as ever to be with the Tigers in Minneapolis come April 1.