It's a tougher atmosphere Rondon faces every game this offseason than anything he'll face in Spring Training, even if the hitters aren't the same. As far as the Tigers are concerned, winter ball is part of the process of grooming the triple-digit fastball they hope to make their closer in the near future.
Rondon has been pitching winter ball for Magallanes since late October, when the Tigers were playing the World Series. For 12 out of his 13 outings entering last weekend, Rondon was fairly effective. For more than half of them, he was dominant, tossing three perfect innings and striking out the side in three other scoreless performances.
The one exception was a doozy, a five-run, five-hit performance Nov. 24. He took the loss in that outing, and didn't pitch for another week. When he finally came back, he showed his ability to rebound with a perfect inning and another save, striking out a batter along the way.
That's the kind of rebound the Tigers want to see, because they know he'll have to deal with failure in the big leagues, no matter how well he pitches.
"The reality is that any young player that you bring up, I cannot think of any in recent times [that didn't], is going to go through a learning stage at the Major League level, because there is such a difference between their experience at the minor league level and the Major League level," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said.
"You have to go through a different learning stage, because they hit pitches at the big league level that they don't at the Triple-A level. And all of a sudden, how do you respond to that? Now rarely, once in a while, you'll get a guy that doesn't, but the reality is that they almost all go through it. That's why at times when you get them there quickly, first you're getting them because they've done very well at the Minor League level; the second part of it is that they're still, no matter what, going to have to go through a learning phase."
Sometimes, it happens right away. Other time, as in the case of Rick Porcello as a 20-year-old rookie in 2009, it takes a year. Eventually, though, the adjustments have to come. That is what manager Jim Leyland looks to see from rookies.
"You never know for sure until you see them compete at that level for a while. And if you watch, a lot of them are very successful right at the beginning, and then all of a sudden, things catch up with them," Leyland said. "All of a sudden, they have to go through that adjustment period. That's when they get over the hump. If they can make adjustments, that's when to me they're home free."
For Rondon, the adjustment on the way up has usually been command. With a fastball that reaches 102-103 mph, he doesn't have much trouble getting Minor League hitters to chase in opportune situations.
It's a small sample size for Rondon this winter, obviously, but the numbers are encouraging, with a 5-for-14 walk-to-strikeout ratio over 12 2/3 innings. Just three of those walks have come over his last 10 outings, covering 9 2/3 innings. Even in Rondon's disastrous outing, only one of his baserunners reached on a walk, compared with five hits.
The Tigers don't have an innings limit on Rondon this winter, assistant general manager Al Avila confirmed in an email. That said, they're not going to overwork him with a potentially extended season on the horizon. He has never had as long of a season as what the big leagues require, and even if he doesn't end up the closer, he's going to have to work through that as a reliever in any role.
He's also going to have to learn how to regroup.
"I'll get a pulse for him in Spring Training, what I feel about him, his makeup," Leyland said. "The one thing that [former closer Jose] Valverde was very good at is he could turn the page pretty quickly, and a closer has to be able to do that. When you get a young guy, I don't know for sure how a guy's going to respond. You don't know if you give somebody an opportunity, and those things happen.
"They let one get away. How do they respond to it? How do they bounce back the next day? It's such an important part of your team, because when you let them get away in the ninth inning, obviously, those can have an impact on your entire team. So that guy is going to be huge for us as he is for every other team."