I spent a great deal of time this spring talking about Dontrelle Willis and his possible return to the Tigers rotation. We discussed the impact he could have, the roster implications, even the possibility that Willis wouldn’t be able to make the club and be cut. In short, if you were around these parts at all during camp, you were smothered in D-Train chatter.
Lost in all the talk about a formerly great pitcher trying to get his act together was any kind of real discussion of another formerly pretty good pitcher who was trying to do the same; Jeremy Bonderman. For that, I apologize, and will attempt to rectify the situation herein.
Bonderman brings himself front and center this afternoon when he takes the mound to start versus the Indians at the CoPa. It will be his first start since his ill-fated attempt to come back in the middle of last season. Bonderman underwent major surgery in the summer of 2008 to correct a circulation problem in his right arm. He pitched in camp in 2009 but was shut down and stayed in Florida for extended Spring Training.
After a lengthy rehab assignment he was activated to start a game in Chicago on June 8. The results were anything but good. Using a fastball that sat in the mid-to-high 80s, Bonderman needed 85 pitches to get through four innings. Along the way he didn’t miss many bats. The White Sox knocked him around to the tune of six earned runs on eight hits and three walks. Bonderman allowed three home runs in his outing as well.
Bonderman was put back on the DL and didn’t return until September where he worked exclusively out of the bullpen, and only in lopsided games.
Prior to his injury, Bonderman was a staple of the Tigers rotation. Though he has never lived up to the high-billing he got when he came to the big leagues at age 20, Bonderman did put together a few quality seasons for Detroit. He has twice won 14 games, and in 2006 recorded career highs in innings pitched and strikeouts, topping 200 of each.
But let’s not make him out to have been something he wasn’t. Apart from that magical year, Bonderman has never posted an ERA lower than 4.29. He has never worked 200 innings, and he has never won more than 14 games. He has been a slightly above-average pitcher at best. And that was with a fastball that could reach 97 mph.
Fast forward to today and you see a different pitcher. Bonderman has regained some of his lost velocity, but throws in the 92-94 range these days. In Lakeland, he showed that his slider has regained some of its life and speed as well. And of course, we all know he has been desperately trying to add a third pitch since his rookie year in 2003. This year is no different, but he has shelved his change-up in favor of a splitter, we’ll see if he has the confidence and conviction to throw it.
If the Tigers are to stay in the race in the AL Central, they’ll need to have enough offense to keep up with the Twins and enough pitching to keep up with the White Sox. The front three of the Tigers rotation has the talent to be among the league’s best, but apart from Justin Verlander, they lack experience. Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer have totaled less than 400 big league innings combined.
Along with the afore-mentioned Willis, Detroit will need Bonderman to show he is healthy enough and effective enough to eat innings. He doesn’t have to live up to his once-promising potential to be a success, those days are likely gone, but he must learn how to become a better pitcher, and do so with diminished stuff.
The first test is today. Bonderman has had basically two years to prepare. Let’s hope he has learned the material well enough to re-claim his career.