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Bruce Rondon climbs to top of minor league pile-up

Right-hander could be offseason’s most intriguing reclamation project yet

Detroit Tigers v Baltimore Orioles
“COULD be?!”
Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Last week we discussed the non-roster invitees to Spring Training, including the notable minor league deals the White Sox have dished out this offseason. Picking up fallen major league players can pay off if the Sox can find something that previous teams couldn’t, as proven by the signing of Anthony Swarzak and subsequent trade for Ryan Cordell (whom we’ve also discussed).

The two most promising NRIs as of last week appeared to be pitchers T.J. House and Rob Scahill. The Sox have since added Xavier Cedeno, Gonzalez Germen, and Jeanmar Gomez, and Thursday they brought in one more with some name recognition: former Tigers reliever Bruce Rondon.

Even before Rondon made his debut in 2013, he was given the title Closer of the Future. His special fastball made him one of baseball’s top relief prospects, even though he struggled with control and command in the minors. Baseball America attributed these issues in part to his weight; he was nearly 300 pounds at one point despite being only 6’2”.

Rondon got the call in April 2013, and during that rookie season he averaged—averaged—100.3 MPH on his fastball. He spent the year in middle relief and pitched to a 3.45 ERA with a 2.73 K/BB ratio. It looked like he was well on his way to becoming an impact reliever in Detroit, but a UCL tear ended his 2014 season before it started. He finally returned to the field on June 25, 2015, but struggled.

On September 22 of that season, the Tigers ended Rondon’s season early for what they saw as a lack of effort. He appeared to be intentionally dialing back his fastball despite the coaches telling him not to, and Al Avila and Brad Ausmus sent him home.

Since then, Rondon has spent the last two seasons bouncing between Detroit and Triple-A Toledo. Although he’s struck out 11.6 batters per 9 innings over the last two years, he finished 2017 with a 10.91 ERA in 21 appearances. In addition, the maturity issues are far from gone; on July 26, Rondon caused the benches to clear when he beaned Mike Moustakas in the 9th inning of a 16-2 blowout, just cause.

Hopefully it’s clear by now that Rondon is not only a physical project, but also a mental or behavioral one. He let down his teammates and coaches in Detroit one time too many, and despite his natural talent he’s been kicked to the curb. However, he’s still just 27 and, as he proved against Moustakas, he can still hike it up to 99 (although probably not sustainably). The White Sox just have to hope that a change of scenery can be the first step toward a new beginning. Of course, they’ve had success with large, troubled fireballers before.