As a variable, Bruce Rondon has become a constant.
For the second straight year in spring training, he will be the Tigers' X factor.
The 23-year-old right-hander could play a decisive role in next season's bullpen--or hardly any role at all.
In spring training this year, the Tigers hoped Rondon could perform the rare feat of taking over as their closer despite never having pitched in the big leagues. That didn't happen; Rondon was sent to the minors at the end of spring training.
Two things will be different this time around.
The Tigers would like to see Rondon become the eighth-inning set-up man, not the closer. They've signed a closer who is about as established as any closer can be: Joe Nathan, who had 43 saves last season and has 341 in his career.
Unlike last spring, the Tigers now have a veteran pitcher as Plan B if Rondon can't win the job they hope he will win. Although the word "insurance" wasn't used by the club when Joba Chamberlain signed the other day, the right-hander provides an experienced eighth-inning alternative if Rondon doesn't win the job.
In the second half of this past season, Rondon seemed to be moving into the eighth-inning role. But then he pitched only once after early September because of a sore elbow.
"We think he's going to be healthy for the year," Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "The doctors have cleared him and think he's healthy. He's throwing the ball--he's playing catch. He's not off the mound yet.
"He's back in Venezuela. He continues to work on his conditioning and getting ready for the year."
The big question is whether Rondon will stay healthy. On Sept. 2, he struck out Boston's David Ortiz. There's probably no way to prove it, but Rondon might have hurt this arm by overexerting himself against the famous DH. Then the elbow trouble inhibited him. Rondon pitched in only one more game after the Ortiz episode.
When someone throws as hard as Rondon, does he have to be careful he doesn't risk an arm injury by overthrowing too often?
"I think any pitcher has to be afraid they don't overthrow," Dombrowski said. "Young pitchers go through that more than veteran pitchers. I'm sure we'll continue to work with him on that focus. You don't want any of your pitchers to overthrow because that can create problems for any of them."
Rondon's role next season will depend on at least one additional component: what Brad Ausmus thinks of him when he sees Rondon throw in spring training.
"I have not laid eyes on Bruce Rondon," said the Tigers' new manager. "I like people in the pen knowing where they slot in. I wouldn't make that final decision without seeing Bruce throw."
And that will be a key factor in determining the role of the Tigers' X factor.
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