Name: Francisco Rondon
Position: Reliever (LHP)
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 24 (born 4/19/1988)
Height: 6'0" Weight: 190 lbs.
Remaining Contract: Under team control, pre-arbitration
2012 statistics: (AA) 41 games, 63.2 IP, 3.96 ERA, 4.06 FIP, 7.9 H/9, 5.5 BB/9, 9.9 K/9
Francisco Rondon is in the middle of a somewhat-unique experiment--can a Yankees player transition from an organizational arm to a possibly-useful player?
In the 2011-12 offseason, the Yankees cut one of these such pitchers, then-23-year-old righthander Jose Quintana, who spent four years in the organization, never above A-ball. He had a 2.91 ERA in 102 inning at High-A Tampa in '11, but the Yankees simply considered him expendable and granted him free agency that November. The White Sox picked him up and after only a handful of Double-A starts, he was given an opportunity at the major-league level. Then, the Yankees watched in embarrassment as the young pitcher they cut for nothing burst onto the American League scene and maintained a 2.76 ERA and 1.98 BB/9 through mid-August. Even though Quintana's pace slowed down afterward, his success encouraged the Yankees to be more careful about the minor leaguers they release (the John Axford of 2010-11 is another such example).
Quintana's story might be one of the reasons the Yankees have given the lefty Rondon a closer look than they might have offered to organizational arms in the past. Rondon began his eighth year with the team yesterday in Double-A Trenton, the highest level he has ever started a season. That's not to say he pitched poorly at other levels, either--the Yankees just did not consider him to be much of a prospect. The lefty had a 3.38 ERA and a rising strikeout rate in the Dominican Summer League during his teenage years in 2006-07 before pitching to a 3.22 ERA in Rookie Ball in '08 and a 2.32 ERA in 11 starts at short-season Staten Island in '09. Sure, he had some control issues with a walk-rate of 5.5 per nine innings, but that has not stopped the Yankees from trying to guide pitchers past such problems in the past (successfully with David Robertson, unsuccessfully with Dellin Betances).
Unfortunately, Rondon injured himself toward the end of the '09 season, and between August 20, 2009 and June 30, 2011, he spent approximately 238 days hurt. It's difficult to determine what kind of injuries Rondon sustained since minor league injuries are not well-documented, but it was enough for the Yankees to turn him into a reliever and he pitched just 33 games from 2010-11. Finally healthy for a full season in 2012, the Yanks decided to stash him at Double-A Trenton after a couple games. It was his first time above A-ball, and as his statistics indicate, he pitched fairly well.
Manager Tony Franklin did not limit him to lefty hitters, so he naturally faced righties about 100 more times than lefties. Righthanded hitters hit .236/.358/.376 against him, as Rondon struggled with control when facing them (6.59 BB/9). He was understandably better against lefties, who only hit .235/.300/.309 against him with eight total walks (3.38 BB/9). Those numbers are good, but not quite overwhelming enough to merit a promotion to the big leagues for even a LOOGY role. He's shown fine strikeout numbers, but Rondon needs to either be more dominant against lefties or solve his control issues against righthanders.
Rondon's repertoire includes a fastball that runs from the low-to-mid-90s and a sharp slider that was clocked in the low-to-mid 80s in Spring Training. Those two pitches alone should be enough for a reliever to pitch well, but after seven innings of one-run ball in March, the Yankees decided to stretch Rondon out toward the end of minor league camp this year and try him in the rotation once more. It's certainly worth a shot since hard-throwing lefty starters offer more promise than relievers, but Rondon's third pitch is a mediocre changeup that is not often deployed.
It's going to be difficult for Rondon to succeed as a starter if he doesn't develop a better tertiary pitch, but perhaps he will as he pitches in the rotation for the first time in four years. In his first start at Double-A Trenton yesterday, he threw five innings against Portland, allowing three runs on five hits and a walk, striking out six. He retired all three lefties he faced and issued just one walk to a righty, so that's good news, but all three of those runs scored on solo homers by righty hitters (one by the ninth-place hitter).
Rondon's transition back to the rotation will be something to watch in Trenton aside from the big hitting prospects. The worst-case scenario is that he moves back to the 'pen and tries to become more effective against lefties. If he can succeed as a starter though, his path to the majors should be much easier than trying to break through as a reliever.