One week from today the Detroit Tigers will break camp and head north for a two game tune-up in Milwaukee ahead of Opening Day in Kansas City on April 5. By the time the plane takes off for Miller Park, the Tigers will be down to 25 guys, the regular season roster limit.
Over the next several days, manager Jim Leyland will sit down with his coaches and GM Dave Dombrowski and finalize the roster. Among the major topics for discussion will be the pitching staff and how, if at all, both of today’s starters will factor in.
In the first game of a split squad double-header this afternoon, Dontrelle Willis will take the ball versus the Blue Jays in Lakeland. Five hours later, Jeremy Bonderman will make a start versus the Nationals in Viera. For each hurler, this marks what could be the final start they make before their fates are known.
When camp opened last month, Bonderman was thought to be a shoo-in for a rotation spot, just so long as he showed he was healthy enough to pitch. After missing the vast majority of the past two years with injuries, that was no given, but Bondo has been healthy by all accounts so far. The problem is that he has yet to post a clean outing.
In four games (3 starts), Bonderman has worked just 8.2 innings. In that time, he has been hammered for nine runs on 15 hits and four walks. He has eight strikeouts and has shown the capability to establish a third pitch (a splitter), something that had been missing from his pre-injury repertoire. Leyland has stated that he wants to see more splitters from Bondo, who is hesitant to use it.
Willis was an afterthought coming into camp. The only real drama was supposed to be whether or not the Tigers would try to stash him away on the disabled list for another season or simply release him. To Willis’ credit, he has changed that discussion altogether. Oh, the Tigers may still part ways with Dontrelle, but if they do, it won’t be because of his efforts in Lakeland this year.
Like Bonderman, Willis has yet to work past the third inning of any of his outings in camp. But unlike Bondo, Willis has shown results. In his 11 innings of work, Willis has held opponents to just one run on seven hits. He has walked five and struck out seven. His velocity has returned along with his control, as Willis is consistently working in the low-90s, no matter what Lynn Henning will tell you.
There is now a growing possibility that both Bonderman and Willis will make the team, along with Nate Robertson. Growing sentiment around the blogosphere is that Bonderman could be the odd man out in terms of the starting rotation, and that both left handers could see starting roles. In terms of forecasting the Tigers chances this year, it would be beneficial to have two lefty starters, especially when facing teams like the Twins and Indians 18 times apiece. If Willis and Robertson can show that their spring numbers are no fluke, the Tigers stand to be a significantly bigger threat to the division crown.
Zach Miner’s elbow strain means he won’t be ready for Opening Day, and he hasn’t done much to inspire confidence when he has been healthy. Bonderman could slot in nicely in a RH relief role until which time that his effectiveness improves and a need at starter arises. There has been a thought throughout his career that Bondo would be better suited for relief work. Even with his new splitter, Bonderman is still showing that he is essentially a two-pitch guy. He has always struggled in the first inning, but we won’t know if those struggles will follow him to the bullpen until he is used in that role. Miner’s injury might just provide the window of opportunity to find out, and to do so without the finality of releasing a player without seeing regular season results.
The plan for each starter today is to work longer into the game, and do so effectively. Willis must continue to attack the hitters and pound the strike zone, Bonderman must show confidence in his split, and a willingness to throw it, and show he can get hitters out. There is still a week’s worth of games between now and when the Tigers head to Milwaukee, but for Willis and Bonderman, today’s outings are their last best chance to show that they belong in the rotation.