Then & Now is a weekly feature at Indians Prospect Insider during the offseason that takes a look at a prospect’s past and present while also offering a possible glimpse into the prospect’s future.
It was just a few years ago when a trio of Latin American starting pitching prospects (Hector Rondon, Kelvin De La Cruz and Jeanmar Gomez) was rapidly ascending through the Cleveland Indians farm system.
Of the three, perhaps the most promising prospect was Rondon. Armed with a plus four-seam fastball, the right-hander could routinely hit the mid 90s and topped out at 96 mph. He also showed the ability to handle a large number of innings at a very young age, and his K/9 rate was quite impressive.
Now, years and multiple surgeries later, Rondon’s future is largely a question mark. He is no longer the promising starting pitching prospect he once was, and no one is really quite sure as to what the future holds for him. Given that, let’s take a look at the up-and-down path that has been Rondon’s career.
Rondon was signed by the Indians in August 2004 out of Venezuela. The next year, at just age 17, Rondon pitched in the Dominican Summer League, and the results were impressive. The 6-foot-3 Rondon recorded a 1.65 ERA in 65 1/3 innings, but more importantly, he also showcased the reasons as to why the Indians were so excited about his potential.
For such a young player, Rondon already seemed to have a commanding presence when he was on the mound. He was not afraid to challenge hitters as he consistently pitched to contact, but he also displayed some nice swing-and-miss ability (7.6 K/9).
Essentially, Rondon was showing why he had the potential to develop into the kind of pitcher that a manager dreams about. His control was impeccable, and his pitch-to-contact approach ensured that he rarely walked batters. Yet, despite being a pitcher who consistently puts the ball on the plate, Rondon also showed that he had the ability to rear back and record a strikeout when necessary.
After coming stateside, Rondon did show some growing pains in 2006 at the rookie ball level (5.13 ERA), but he also continued to improve at every stop along the way. In 2007, as a 19-year-old at Single-A Lake County, Rondon posted a 4.37 ERA in 136 innings. Rondon officially entrenched his status as a legitimate Major League prospect with his 2008 performance at High-A Kinston where he posted a 3.60 ERA in 27 starts and 145 innings while averaging a strikeout per inning.
However, Rondon’s greatest minor league achievements would come in 2009 as he split time between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus. In 146 1/3 innings pitched between the two affiliates, the 21-year-old Rondon posted a 3.38 ERA with a K/9 rate of 8.4. Rondon was no doubt ahead of the learning curve.
At this point, Rondon was very much on the Major League radar. In fact, one would garner to guess that he would have been in line for a call-up sometime during the 2010
Season. But sometimes, when it rains it pours, and it would be hard to find a more applicable idiom for Rondon’s career.
It’s almost tragic to consider the injuries, specifically elbow injuries, that have plagued Rondon over the past couple years. Bear in mind that Rondon is not an example of a player underwhelming and underperforming. In actuality, Rondon is the opposite: he performed at every minor league level and continued to grow and mature as a prospect. It just serves as evidence as to how injuries can quickly derail a promising career in the blink of an eye.
In 2010, Rondon struggled out of the gates as he allowed 12 home runs in his first seven starts despite previously never allowing more than 13 home runs in an entire season. He was shutdown in May of that year with a strain of his ulnar collateral ligament. He chose to rest over the summer before opting for Tommy John surgery when pain returned to his elbow in August.
Just like that, Rondon went from one of the system’s most encouraging pitching prospects to one of the system’s biggest question marks. On the positive side of things, Rondon seemed to progress well following the recovery period. He made two brief appearances with Single-A Mahoning Valley toward the end of the year, and all signs pointed to the right-hander once again reclaiming his previous prospect glory.
At least that seemed to be the case until last November.
During a winter ball appearance, Rondon suffered a fractured right elbow, and he had surgery on November 15. He rehabbed much of this past season before making some brief appearances with the AZL Indians and Akron.
Given the elbow problems that Rondon has had during the past three seasons, it seems safe to say that he is officially no longer a starting pitcher prospect. At the same time, it’s unfair to disregard the right-hander.
In his seven innings pitched between Arizona and Akron, Rondon’s velocity reportedly touched the mid-to-lower 90s, and the results were also impressive as he allowed just one earned run while recording nine strikeouts.
Given his lingering elbow issues, it seems likely that going forward, Rondon will now be viewed as a potential bullpen arm. Given his stuff, control and competitiveness, there is no reason to not believe that Rondon can make the transition into becoming a potentially dynamic reliever.
The only problem, however, is that Rondon is a minor league free agent at the end of the season. The hope is that he will ultimately decide to continue his tenure within the Indians system, especially considering his history of elbow injuries. The Indians know him and his situation better than the 29 other Major League clubs, so it is is Rondon’s best interest to remain with Cleveland.
Rondon’s situation is somewhat parallel to that of former top prospect Adam Miller. Plagued with injuries throughout his career, Miller was never able to recapture his former prospect shine, first with the Indians and now with the New York Yankees, but there’s no telling if the same fate lies ahead for Rondon.
The past two seasons have basically been lost for Rondon as he has spent time recovering and rehabbing from the multiple surgeries. Still, it’s been said that the third time’s the charm. Let’s just hope that proves true come 2013.