- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
LAKELAND, Fla. -- For some of the Detroit Tigers, Bruce Rondon is still more rumor than fact. They've heard about how he throws lightning bolts, a fastball that reaches triple digits, and how he's capable of embarrassing hitters, but they haven't actually seen him on a mound.
"I'm looking forward to it," said Max Scherzer, standing on one of the back fields at the Tigers' facility in Lakeland, and you can understand why, because there is a good chance Rondon will have the responsibility of closing out leads for the Tigers this year despite the fact that he has never thrown a pitch in the big leagues.
Detroit might have the majors' best rotation, as well as a very good lineup; Victor Martinez is bouncing around camp, others say, anxious to be the guy who hits behind Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Torii Hunter is here now, cheerily going about his business, which is his way. This is a team otherwise built to win the World Series -- and the job of getting the last outs might go to a pure rookie.
Tigers catcher Alex Avila has seen Rondon throw. He has caught him in the bullpen, in fact. The other day, Avila decided to break in a new catcher's mitt on the same day he worked with Rondon, and even though the pitcher wasn't really applying full force and adrenaline -- "70 percent," Avila guesstimated -- his fastball carved its way into the new glove.
"Impressive," Avila said with a small smile, which, given the catcher's even-keeled temperament, is like shouting, "YEP, HE LOOKED GREAT!"
This is what Avila has seen in Rondon: His arm angle is about three-quarters, rather than over the top, which means the right-hander is probably going to be very daunting for right-handed hitters. Some guys who throw really hard launch themselves at the hitters, like Joel Zumaya -- but Rondon has a nice and easy delivery, Avila said, with the ball hidden behind him. This means the hitters will see nothing but this very relaxed Sunday-stroll-in-the-park motion -- until the ball is suddenly bearing down on them like a charging buffalo. The motion is deceptive, and a little unnerving.
Rondon has a refined changeup, Avila says, that is probably his second-best pitch; the breaking ball is a little further behind. And this is big: Rondon is capable of working to both sides of the plate, which is not something you usually see in hard-throwing relievers.
"The big thing with him is going to be throwing strikes," Avila said.
Yes. In 2009, at the age of 18, Avila threw 15 1/3 innings professionally and issued 15 walks. The next year, he cut his walk rate in half, doling out 16 in 32 1/3 innings. He had 34 walks in 40 innings in 2011, and then last year, he had 26 in 53 innings, reaching Triple-A by the end of the year.
Rondon is a big guy, listed at 6-foot-3, 255 pounds; his body seems structured like a refrigerator, blocky and strong. But, as he played catch on the back field here Friday, he turned his body fluidly with each throw, a flicker of athleticism; in fact, his motion is reminiscent of that of Livan Hernandez, the former Marlins pitcher who became oversized late in his career but always had extraordinary ability to hit and field his position and repeat his delivery.
The general manager of the Marlins when Hernandez signed was Dave Dombrowski, and his manager was Jim Leyland; they are, of course, both with the Tigers now. The two of them have promoted a lot of young players into prominence in their respective careers. In spring 2006, they committed themselves to using two young, unproven pitchers on that team: Zumaya and Justin Verlander.
It has been telling how open Leyland and Dombrowski have been in recent months about their feelings about Rondon; rather than run from the idea that he could be the closer, they've promoted it, always acknowledging the caveat that Rondon must prove himself in games.
They would not be doing that, a reporter said to Avila, if they didn't really believe he is ready. Avila agreed.
He has seen Rondon throw. He has talked to him about finishing games.
"This," Avila said, "is something he wants."
Al Kaline says Cabrera is a Hall of Famer already.
• Melky Cabrera talked about performance-enhancing drugs a little. Rosie DiManno feels Cabrera has dodged questions. Alex Anthopoulos says the Jays talked about what it would mean if they signed Cabrera.
"I was shocked, because Jeffrey Loria, he always told me he's never going to trade me," Reyes said on his first day as a Blue Jay. "He always called my agent and said, 'Tell Jose to get a good place here to live,' and stuff like that."
In fact, Reyes said he and Loria attended a dinner together only a couple of days before the trade, and "he was talking still about 'get a nice house in Miami.'"
"That was kind of crazy," 29-year-old Reyes said. "I mean, how can you want me to spend some money in Miami, when I have my house in New York, and you're going to trade me in two days?"
• The Rays met with the St. Petersburg mayor.
• This explains at least some of the Bigfoot sightings in the offseason.
The fight for jobs
Dings and dents
2. Neil Walker's back is back to normal, writes Rob Biertempfel.
Moves, deals and decisions
The pitchers and catchers in the Angels' camp are focusing on building a rapport, writes Jeff Fletcher.
The Royals' staff is falling into place, writes Bob Dutton.
John Farrell is setting a different tone with the Red Sox, writes Peter Abraham.
The Diamondbacks hope that a change of culture brings wins.
Bruce Bochy got to watch his son throw a bullpen session, as Alex Pavolic writes.
The Pirates' bullpen guys are aiming for something special, as Bill Brink writes.
Hernandez skipping the World Baseball Classic will help the Mariners monitor his arm more closely this spring and pull him back if they feel he needs rest. Some in Venezuela have criticized Hernandez's decision to pull out, but Hernandez shrugged it off and said it was an easy call.
"It was my decision," Hernandez said. "I felt the best thing for me was to stay here with my teammates. Because this is a big deal. This is a big deal. So, it's better for me to be here with those guys."
The dollars committed were a huge deal for the team's ownership, which likely wasn't thrilled about the prospect of Hernandez playing for somebody else before contract ink was even dry.
And regardless of whether the decision was Hernandez's alone, he realizes now that such choices have an impact well beyond him. That much was clear when Hernandez [was] asked what he thinks being a franchise face actually entails outside the lines.
His reply was simple.
"Anything they ask me to do, I'll do it."
Buster Olney writes that Bruce Rondon is expected to play a key role for the Tigers this season, and why Detroit has reason to believe that he'll be up to the task.