Friday: Panic put down in Tigertown
Hold your panic. Call off the search party dispatched to the Cactus League. Everybody take a deep breath.
Bruce Rondon didn’t win the job yet, not with one outing against a Mets lineup made up largely of promising prospects, just as Rondon didn’t lose the job with four outings covering 3 2/3 innings. There are three weeks left in Spring Training, folks, and this is an organization that usually doesn’t make rash decisions (except for Tim Byrdak five years ago, and that came back to bite them big enough that they’ve learned their lesson).
The Tigers have 21 Spring Training games left over 22 days. For practical purposes of evaluating talent, you can make it 19 games over 20, since they usually decide everything before their final home game of the spring. At some point soon, he will get on a pattern of pitching every other day. His next outing is currently scheduled for Monday against the Mets. If he gets an even 10 innings, it’s two more than he got at Triple-A Toledo down the stretch last year, and almost half as many as he had at Double-A Erie. If he pitches once on back-to-back days, as closers usually do once a spring, he’ll get around 11 innings.
They have time to do this right and evaluate.
Even if the Tigers eventually decide to bring in somebody else, nothing major happens on the trade market until the final few days of Spring Training, anyway, when teams know their injuries and have a grasp on how much depth they have at each position.
Rondon hasn’t won anything yet, but Friday showed he’s giving himself a chance.
“Like I said when he was giving up a few hits, runs, I wasn’t getting excited,” Leyland said, “and I’m not going to get excited over a scoreless inning. But he was better. He was better, under control better, things of that nature. That’s just what it is.
“The fortunate thing is, we’ve played almost 20 games, and we’re still down here for a whole lot longer. I was counting it out today — 22 more days down here. Time is an ally of a lot of guys, right now. As we shorten up the spring, it won’t be for a lot of guys.”
Rondon went heavily to the fastball, but he probably had to. In so doing, he showed he could command the pitch he needs most. He got a couple young Mets hitters to chase two fastballs out of the strike zone, but that was missing with a purpose, expanding the zone on a hitter.
Even if you believe the idea that throwing 96 for him isn’t unusual for early in Spring Training, even if you don’t buy the idea that he was taking something off his heater to get better command, the fact that he threw 99-100 consistently with command is a statement. He threw only one fastball that registered under 98 mph on the stadium radar, and that was 97 on his next-to-last pitch.
He fell behind a couple hitters — 2-1 on Wilmer Flores, 2-0 on Cesar Puello — and struck them both out before it could get to a three-ball count. He had two men on with two out, knowing the spotlight was on him, and got a first-out popout to get out of it.
There was a lot to like out of Rondon Friday, especially with 10 strikes out of 15 pitches. If you believe that this spring training is going to be a process for him, then credit Jeff Jones for sending him in the right direction.
“I thought he was much better,” Jones said. “And hopefully he’ll get better each time out.”
Leyland said Rondon was OK — not fine, as he usually says about pitchers after a Spring Training outing — but the extra-guarded term of OK. Yet it says something that the manager who was calling closer a major concern a few days ago sounded much calmer Friday.
“I’m really not seeing what I didn’t expect,” Leyland said of Rondon’s start to camp. “I thought I was going to see a guy come in here and want to show everybody he could throw it hard and go after the hitters.”
That’s a much different tone for Leyland from earlier this week. He’s still saying, though, that he has no idea how this will play out. Friday at least removes the sense of panic and allows Rondon — and the Tigers, for that matter — to get to work.