Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | February 16, 2010

The Bonderman Question

One of the big — Nay, huge — Questions surrounding the 2010 Detroit Tigers season is the health and potential of starting pitcher Jeremy Bonderman.  Bonderman was the key return as the player to be named later for the Tigers of the 2002 trade that sent Jeff Weaver to the New York Yankees and was quickly thrust into the starting rotation the next season, well ahead of schedule.

His development was slow but steady and he finally “arrived” in 2006. He was an important part of that pennant winning rotation, logging over 200 innings and becoming the first Tigers pitcher to reach 200 strikeouts in two decades. He was rewarded with a contract extension for his performance, a move similar to what the Seattle Mariners have done with Felix Hernandez recently. He opened the 2007 season even better. For a pitcher who had tremendous hype attached to his name from the moment of acquisition, he truly stepped into the hype during this season. By July he had an ERA of 3.90, a K/9 of 8.2, and a WHIP of 1.21. He gave up lots of ground balls and not many line drives.

Then his performance deteriorated considerably. Over the remainder of the season his ERA was 6.19. He gave up more fly balls and more home runs, as opponent’s posted an OPS of .886 against him over this time. His K/9 fell to 6.7, his WHIP rose to 1.57. After the season he revealed that he’d be pitching through pain late in the year and the Tigers discovered that he had pinched lateral cartilage in his pitching elbow. After an off-season procedure to solve those problems, there was a further decline in 2008 performance and reports that Bonderman was having numbness in his hands. He was found to have thoracic outlet syndrome, which required further surgery and a prolonged recovery period that extended through the 2009 season.

It has now been two and a half years since Bonderman was last an effective pitcher for the Tigers and his performance this season — Where the Tigers seem to be completely counting on him to contribute to the rotation — Is one of the big question marks about this year’s team. However, I have another more into-the-future question: What do the Tigers do if he pitches well?

Bonderman’s four-year contract extension expires at the end of the 2010 season. Amazingly enough to many Tiger fans, he will be the Tigers fourth-highest paid player this season (behind Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, and Carlos Guillen) and their highest paid pitcher at twelve and a half million dollars. Over the life of the contract he has already made twenty-five and a half million dollars for what has amounted to very little production. Yet, he still is only a few months older than Justin Verlander at age 27 heading into the year.

As a still-young but not overly youthful veteran pitcher who already has one full and one partial well above average season under his belt, with a third slightly above average season (2005), should Bonderman pitch well or very well in 2010 he will take that performance on his resume’ into the 2010/11 off-season. And how would the Tigers treat this? On one hand, he would still have to be considered a fairly significant injury risk and the Tigers have already been burned once in giving him a long-term contract. On the other hand he still is a young pitcher and if he proves to be on the same 2006/early 2007 track during the 2010 season, extending his contract again could give the Tigers a very formidable rotation with two pitchers at the top who are both under 30 and yet legitimate Major League “veterans” (Verlander and Bonderman) to team with Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, and any mix of fifth starting options.

As I’ve mentioned in the past when discussing Verlander’s extension, the Tigers are in a good spot with their rotation moving forward in terms of dollars spent, team control over talent, and future talent. It’s fully possible that they will see the guys that they already have long-term control over and decide that no matter how well Bonderman does, that they can afford to lose him. There’s also the possibility that he pitches well but the Tigers as a team do not do well, in which case he could be trade fodder that would bring more youthful prospects into the organization (although in reality, if Bonderman pitches well it is hard to envision the Tigers not having a chance at the division title by the time such trades are generally made). History has shown that you can never have too much pitching, but perhaps the Tigers will decide that the combination of injury risk and cost of Bonderman compared to the low-cost options that they already have will make it so that they don’t see the necessity in bringing him back for 2011.

And then there’s the possibility that he simply doesn’t pitch well in 2010, which renders all of the above moot.

Overall, while “The Bonderman Question” is a big key in the development of the 2010 regular season, its impact isn’t limited to just that period of time. It also will spill over into the 2010/11 off-season and if he performs as well as the Tigers brass seems to believe he will, then what happens during the off-season will speak volumes about how the organization feels about its own depth in the rotation moving forward as well as Bonderman’s ability to sustain any success that he may achieve in 2010. Not only is this a huge “small picture” question for 2010, but it’s a huge “big picture” question going forward into the next off-season as well.

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