DETROIT -- Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski spent most of the Winter Meetings reinforcing the belief that Bruce Rondon could handle the pressure of becoming the centerpiece in Detroit's bullpen.
"People forget, in 2006, we had a couple guys by the names of Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya that played pretty important roles, and Curtis Granderson came in, too. Well, they did all right," Dombrowski said, defending the willingness to put an unproven reliever in a major role. "[Rondon] is that type of talent."
That quote actually came from last year's Winter Meetings. The year has changed, and so has the inning the Tigers want Rondon to pitch, but the belief in him has not.
"I think the person we're really looking to step up for us once again -- and we really think he's capable -- is Bruce Rondon," Dombrowski said earlier this month, leading into last week's Winter Meetings. "He's healthy. He's feeling good. We look at him being a potential eighth-inning guy, and the rest of the bullpen falling into place after that."
If there's a similarity in the Tigers' approach at last year's Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn., and last week's meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., it's the eagerness to plug Rondon into a late-inning role previously held by a veteran. Last season, Rondon was the leading candidate to succeed Jose Valverde at closer. This time, he'll go into Spring Training as Detroit's top setup man, the job Joaquin Benoit filled effectively for the better part of three years before Benoit took over at closer last summer.
Once again, Rondon will have a veteran reliever to mentor him, with new closer Joe Nathan on board. However, there are two major differences: This year, they've seen what Rondon can do in big situations in the big leagues, and Rondon has gained the confidence of getting big league hitters out in big situations.
The confidence in Rondon can best be seen in the Tigers' moves this offseason. Instead of looking for a proven setup man to take over the eighth inning, as had been expected, Detroit signed onto Joba Chamberlain's attempt to regain his form that once made him an intimidating setup man. They didn't sign Chamberlain to supplant Rondon, however, only to back him up.
If Rondon is healthy, team officials say, they expect him to handle eighth-inning leads and carry them to Nathan. Chamberlain is essentially the insurance policy -- albeit a pricey one at $2.5 million -- if Rondon has any lingering effects from the elbow soreness that kept him out of the stretch run this past season.
"In Bruce's case, we continue to think that he has setup abilities," Dombrowski said. "We think he's going to be healthy for the year, but we also think the depth is important, and we think we have a guy in Joba who's capable of doing that."
Rondon had five holds and a save in seven opportunities after returning from Triple-A Toledo near the end of June to fill a setup role. The one chance he blew came in one of his better outings of the year, throwing two perfect innings with three strikeouts at Cleveland on Aug. 7 after entering with the tying run on third and nobody out in the eighth. He couldn't keep the tying run from scoring, but he stranded the go-ahead run, giving Detroit a chance to win in extra innings. He didn't allow a ball hit out of the infield from any of the six batters he faced, three of whom struck out.
Rondon's command, the bugaboo that doomed his chances at winning the closer job last spring, settled down in a setup role over the summer. He walked nine batters over 26 1/3 innings upon his return, throwing strikes at a 64 percent rate while racking up 29 strikeouts.
He pitched in just three September outings thanks to the elbow problem, but his final two outings of the season showed what the Tigers would eventually end up missing. The first came on Labor Day in Boston, where Rondon entered with a 3-0 lead to face the middle of the Red Sox order with one out in the eighth. After striking out Shane Victorino, a Dustin Pedroia double and wild pitch gave Boston a chance at a rally with David Ortiz coming up.
Rondon threw consecutive pitches that lit up the Fenway Park radar gun, the first at 103 mph that Ortiz fouled back, the second at 102 that Ortiz fouled into catcher Alex Avila's mitt for an inning-ending strikeout. It was after that outing when Rondon came down with elbow inflammation.
He returned three weeks later for one more outing, and it was just about as impressive, striking out the middle of the Twins' lineup in order on 10 pitches in the eighth inning to protect a 4-2 lead at Minnesota on Sept. 24. Rondon mixed fastballs and sliders like he was healthy, and he sounded relieved to feel fine afterwards. The next day, however, he felt soreness that essentially ended his season.
When Dombrowski performed the autopsy on the Tigers' postseason run last month, he mentioned Rondon's absence as highly as Miguel Cabrera's lingering groin injury that sapped the American League MVP of much of his power hitting. The Tigers had depth in their remaining middle relief, but not dominance.
Rondon is currently throwing in an offseason program, but isn't yet pitching off a mound, which isn't unusual for this time of year. The Tigers expect him to be fully healthy for Spring Training. If that happens, they expect big outs from him to anchor their bullpen.