Bruce Rondon, Steven Moya Struggle to Evolve

Two of the most prized youngsters in the Tigers organization, slugging outfielder Steven Moya and flame throwing right-hander Bruce Rondon are both currently just a step away from the big leagues. But despite being so close, they are in many ways still quite far, as they have more work to do to be ready for the Majors.

For Bruce Rondon, it’s been a difficult year and a half. Rondon made his big league debut back in the spring of 2013, but got roughed up and returned to Toledo to work on his game. He made his way back up to Detroit later in the summer, and looked to be there to say. The #2 prospect in the farm system entering the year, he peaked in early September, in a highlight matchup where he went head-to-head with David Ortiz and struck him out.

But a tender elbow sidelined him for the rest of the fall, leaving the Tigers without a key bullpen piece. When spring of 2014 rolled around, he was slotted to play a big role in relief, but instead found himself going under the knife, having Tommy John surgery down in March.

With a full year to recover, there was optimism that Rondon would be ready to pitch come Opening Day, but he suffered multiple relatively minor setbacks and instead began the year on the DL. When he was finally ready to pitch in live games, he started his rehab assignment in Toledo, but struggled mightily. On Sunday, the Tigers made his assignment to Toledo more permanent, optioning him down there.

The move wasn’t a surprise. In nine Triple-A appearances, Rondon has a 10.38 ERA. He has walked five and struck out nine over 8 2/3 innings, while posting a WHIP of 2.31. And his spring didn’t go much better, with a 4.91 ERA in eight games.

Looking closer at his Toledo stats, his shockingly high BAbip is .452, and will certainly come down. However, after years of limiting hard contact, his line drive rate in Toledo is up over 21%, and is only getting a ground ball about 36% of the time (compared to a career average nearly ten points higher). He’s giving a lot more hits because he’s throwing a lot more hittable pitches, that are being hit harder and doing more damage.

“Can he do it? I don’t know. But he hasn’t.”

According to one scout that recently saw Rondon in action, the movement on his pitches is gone. His fastball used to have some swing back action on it, barreling in on right-handers – it’s now coming in straight. His slider in 2013 had some hard bite to it after making strides with the pitch, but it’s now become more slurvy and less of a swing-and-miss weapon, especially against left-handers.

To add to that issue, Rondon has not been able to find his location. When asked about his performance, Toledo manager Larry Parrish had some succinct thoughts on Rondon. “One day, you call him in and everything is where it’s supposed to be and he throws like a million bucks, and you think he looks like a big leaguer, and the next time you call him and he doesn’t look like the same guy,” said Parrish.

His explanation for why he’s struggling is not something new to Rondon, but is likely a key contributing factor. More from Parrish: “It’s the consistency of that arm angle. It takes some kind of athlete to throw it from different arm slots and have any kind of command. He’s not getting his arm through in the same slot, continuing later on, “His velocity is fine, it’s a matter of locating. It’s great to throw 98, 99. But it still needs to be located.”

Parrish closed with a not overly optimistic summary. “Can he do it? I don’t know. But he hasn’t.”

While Rondon works to get things out as he fully recovers from injury and works to regain his consistency, his teammate and fellow heralded prospect Steven Moya is battling a different set of specific challenges on the field, but follows a similar storyline.

Moya had always been well thought of in the organization, given his impressive size that helped generate mammoth power. In 2014, he put that power potential into production, setting the Erie Seawolves single season home run record with 35 homers, en route to being named Eastern League MVP. He shot up the prospect charts in the off-season, and was given consideration to being a Top 100 prospect, in addition to being ranked 2nd in the TigsTown 2015 Top 50.

But, like Rondon, that success was followed up with spring troubles and injury. Moya had a very tough spring, and was diagnosed with plantar fasciitis, sidelining him for almost a month. Upon returning to action, he quickly found his power in Lakeland before being sent to Toledo, where he’s shown rust and difficulty adjusting to the caliber of Triple-A competition.

In 50 games now, Moya has hit .240. And while he has taken 13 walks, raising his walk rate to over 6% from 4% last year, his power numbers have suffered mightily. His isolated slugging rate has fallen dramatically, from 0.28 last year in Erie to under 0.15 this season with the Hens. His swing-and-miss rate is very high as well, at 37%.

According to the same scout, Moya’s trying to work through two issues. His big frame creates a very long swing – a long swing that has holes in it, and with a big strike zone at 6-7, is always going to be susceptible to being exploited. But in addition to that, Moya appears to have lost confidence at the plate – his desire to show more patience has left him tentative, unsure when to swing and when to show restraint. That hesitation makes him slow to react, and his long swing simply isn’t quick enough to recover.

Parrish sees a good kid in Moya that’s working hard, but also someone that has a lot of work left to do. “He’s still going through the learning process. He’s not ready for the big leagues yet,” said Parrish.

When asked when he might be ready, it wasn’t an answer that fans looking for midseason help were looking for. “I think it’s going to take him all year here, to be honest. It’s going to be tougher for him, he’s such a big kid. Long arms, big strike zone to cover. And the thing that gives him the leverage to hit it a long way also creates holes. The learning curve takes longer for someone like that than it does for a shorter arm, shorter swing type player.”

The upside for Moya remains he has tremendous power, and at 23 years of age, is still developing physically, in addition to having only about 2,000 professional at bats, dating back to 2009, when he was just 17.

But for Moya, much like Rondon, the biggest challenge will come in this final step, when the opposition can no longer be easily exploited by mammoth power or a triple digit fastball. Time will tell if the talented youngsters can become Major League stars, or if they’ll end up toiling away, unable to make the leap.

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