Bruce Rondon entered professional baseball in 2008 as a member of the Detroit Tigers’ Venezuelan Summer League club. At the time, he was just another kid, a 17-year-old with a fastball that sat in the high 80s and low 90s and a fringy slider. He struggled to command his pitches and, as a result, spent all of 2008 and most of 2009 in the VSL. In 2010, his velocity ticked up and his slider became an average offering, helping him build some steam as a prospect. By 2011, Rondon had a fastball that consistently received grades of 75 and 80 from scouts.
Not surprisingly, scouts and player development officials really like Rondon. While some envision him as a future closer waiting for the right opportunity, others liken him to a former Tigers flamethrower who excelled in a setup role. “He’s pretty similar to a guy they had a few years ago, Joel Zumaya,” one scout opined. Rondon is a classic fastball/slider pitcher, but his ability to harness triple-digit velocity makes him stand out. “The stuff is all there,” the scout added. “He just needs to show better command.”
Some people have seen Rondon hit 103 MPH with his fastball, which consistently sits in the 98-100 range. The pitch also has significant boring action to it, making it an easy 80 in the opinions of most evaluators. The 21-year-old’s slider receives varying reviews, with some scouts grading it as high as a 60 and others throwing out 50s and 55s. Rondon gets excellent break on the pitch (which sits in the upper 80s) but can struggle to command it. He’s also worked with a changeup at times this season, but it hasn’t impressed scouts thus far.
Opposing scouts have noted Rondon’s improvement and believe that it’s not unreasonable to expect him to continue getting better. “Whoever got with him this winter knows what they’re doing,” another scout said. “Last year, the fastball got flat. He’s made some adjustments. He’s got better plane and velocity on his fastball.”
“When you’re looking at the back end of a bullpen, with [Rondon’s] kind of stuff usually two pitches is all you need, and if you can command those two pitches you’re going to get a lot of outs,” said Al Avila, Detroit’s Assistant General Manager. “I think that changeup will be good enough, but [I] don’t think the changeup needs to come along that much.” Obviously, the Tigers would be thrilled if the changeup got good enough to miss big-league bats, but Rondon has what it takes to ascend into a late-inning role without it.
An inability to put the ball where he wants it has plagued Rondon throughout his career. According to one player development official, he has to work on “commanding his fastball and his breaking stuff.” The official continued, “He’s making some nice strides. He’s had a really good year.” Rondon’s command has come a long way, but even when he doesn’t have it, he can be effectively wild, missing opposing bats as well as the strike zone with his heater.
Rondon’s Double-A manager, Chris Cron, who oversaw his development from the start of this season until his recent promotion to Triple-A Toledo, weighed in on the power pitcher’s tenure with the Erie Seawolves:
He comes in with all these positives, and one of the stepping stones that the kid had to make was the strike zone. He needed to find it, he needed to throw more strikes. And when you throw 100—and he topped out here at 103 MPH—you don’t need total command, you just need the strike zone. [Bruce] was able to do that right from the get-go. There were no growing pains or anything like that.
Rondon “had a couple different stumbling points in a couple outings,” Cron continued. “Those are just what’s going to happen with anybody, but for the most part, he accomplished everything [he needed to].” It took him only 21 games with Erie for the organization to reach the same conclusion and bump him up another level.
Avila, like other evaluators, realizes that Rondon is close, but not all the way there:
He dominated in Lakeland, he dominated in Erie, and he is dominating in Toledo, but he may not be fully ready to dominate in Detroit like he did in the minor leagues. But he is close, and he could be an effective pitcher now.
Rondon might get a long look if there were an acute need at the major-league level, but he’s not expected to succeed immediately in a late-inning role. He still struggles with a few requirements of being a pitcher unrelated to his command. He isn’t particularly good at holding runners or fielding his position, and both of those skills are important to the Tigers’ player development staff.
Those who have worked to acclimate Rondon to U.S. culture and the English language praise him as a highly motivated young man who understands what he needs to do to be successful. On the field, Rondon wants the baseball in high-leverage situations and pitches with his heart on his sleeve. The comparisons to Tigers relievers don’t end with Zumaya: the fire that Rondon pitches with is comparable to that of Jose Valverde, who currently pitches the ninth for the Tigers. He has the makeup required of a big leaguer.
According to one executive, Rondon’s immediate future is still being determined. While he is not expected to be thrust into a prominent role this season, he figures to get strong consideration for a relief role in September, if not even earlier. Any appearance with Triple-A Toledo could be his last.