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LAKELAND, Fla. — Bruce Rondon was chatting with reporters in the clubhouse with help from a translator when he was asked how fast he can really throw.
The Detroit Tigers prospect claimed to have reached 104 mph.
"I want to see that," teammate Joaquin Benoit said.
Skepticism, excitement — and most of all, curiosity. That's what the Tigers are feeling about Rondon right now. The 6-foot-3, 275-pound right-hander from Venezuela could be the team's closer on opening day, but he's never thrown a major league pitch. Now, the defending American League champions are giving him a chance to play a crucial role in their bullpen.
"A lot of players on our team, regular players, you know what you're going to get from them. The only question mark I have so far is Rondon," reliever Octavio Dotel said. "He's got to relax himself every time he's coming to pitch in the ninth. That's what I'm going to give him, and I'm going to inject into him every day, every time."
Detroit let Jose Valverde go after last season and instead of acquiring a veteran closer, the Tigers let the job remain vacant. The reason for that was Rondon, who turned 22 in December and is entering his sixth season with the organization.
Rondon was chosen Detroit's minor league pitcher of the year in 2012, when he posted 29 saves and a 1.53 ERA with Class-A Lakeland, Double-A Erie, and Triple-A Toledo.
Impressive numbers, to be sure, but Rondon pitched only eight innings with Toledo. In 196 career minor league innings, he has 213 strikeouts. He's allowed 111 walks, but opponents hit only .189 against him.
Manager Jim Leyland doesn't want Rondon's progress to become a daily issue at spring training, and he's indicated he'll take his time before deciding how ready the big reliever is for the majors.
"He's been a strikeout guy in the minor leagues. We're in the big leagues now," Leyland said. "I'm not running away from it, but I'm not going to get into it every day. We've got a guy on our hands with a huge arm — how it's going to play out, I can't answer that, but that's what we've got."
If Rondon doesn't win the closer job, Detroit has other options for the ninth inning. Benoit struggled to keep the ball in the park last year, but he had a 2.95 ERA in 2011 for the Tigers. Al Alburquerque has a 1.59 ERA in 49 big league appearances. Dotel has 109 career saves, and Leyland used Phil Coke in crucial spots last year while trying to mix and match his way through the postseason after Valverde faltered.
For now, Rondon is on the spot. He certainly has the size and the look of an intimidating reliever, but his motion seems reasonably effortless.
"That's what makes him a little bit different than guys that throw as hard as he does," catcher Alex Avila said. "He's not as violent with his motion, which is a good thing, because it adds deception."
Rondon will face opposing hitters soon enough during spring training, and throughout this audition he'll have plenty of players in the Detroit clubhouse who can provide support.
What advice has he already received?
"At every level, it's just baseball," Rondon said.
The Tigers certainly hope there's a lot of truth to that.
"He's got a very smooth motion, very deliberate. Then right at the last minute, right when he lets go, it's like an explosion out of his hand," Avila said. "It's awesome. Guys like him, with that type of talent, don't come around often."