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How the 2003 Tigers May Have Killed Jeremy Bonderman’s Career

I know we’d all like to forget the Tigers’ 2003 season.  Yeah, the one where we needed five wins in our last six games just to avoid losing a record 120 games.  There’s not too many player’s left from that team but one of them still on the Tiger’s roster is Jeremy Bonderman.  In his rookie at the age of 20, Bonderman was shut down near the end of the season so he’d avoid losing 20 games in his first season.  From then on, Bonderman was viewed as a future ace and that came through in 2006 when he had a career year with 202 strikeouts in 214 innings.  Since then though, he’s had half of a good season in 2007 and mostly injuries since.  Also after the 2006 season, Jeremy Bonderman signed a big four year deal that the Tigers are still paying for.

What went wrong?  Now Bonderman is struggling to touch 90 mph and he’s not the same pitcher.  He has his third start of the season tomorrow and the hope is that he bounces back like Dontrelle Willis did but you wonder if he’ll ever be the hard thrower that he was coming up prior to signing that big contract.

Of course the problem is two fold.  First, Bonderman is struggling mightily.  Second, the Tigers are paying him, and have been paying him, a lot of money for some subpar seasons.  A big reason for both of these problems could lie in that rookie season in 2003.

1)  Because the Tigers were so bad in 2003, Jeremy Bonderman was rushed up to fill a hole in the rotation.  After being picked in the first round of the 2001 draft, Bonderman played the 2002 season in Modesto and Lakeland, the Athletics and Tigers High-A affiliates.  He was good, but the next season he was in the Tigers rotation.  One of the knocks on Bonderman has always been that he’s never developed a great third pitch.  If he had another season and a half in the minors rather then fighting for his life against MLB hitters, he might have had the latitude to more fully develop a good change up.  He lived on that fastball and slider and that got him by for a while but now with the loss of velocity, having that third pitch in his arsenal could go a long way towards him making a comeback.

2)  Similarly, Bonderman wasn’t on as short of a leash innings wise as he might have been if he had pitched in the minors.  Bonderman didn’t work too hard but he had five starts where he topped 100 pitches and even went as high as 119 in 2003.  His 162 innings don’t sound like much, but that’s a lot more batters then he would have seen with 162 innings down in the minors.

In 2004, he went over 100 pitches 12 times as a 21 year old.  He put up 184 innings and again, had he spent most of the season at Triple-A, he would have thrown to a lot fewer batters in the same amount of innings. 

3)  The Tigers got his salary clock ticking a lot sooner by bringing him up early.  Even with one more year in the minors, had Bonderman had the breakout season in 2006, he would have been in his first year of arbitration and not his second.  The Tiger MO has been to lock up players after their second year of arbitration eligibility so had the Tigers waited, they might have waited a year to give Bonderman the big year and even if they did, the odds are good he wouldn’t have gotten as much overall.  Possibly enough for another piece of the puzzle as the Tigers get further into the 2010 season.

Yeah, I know there’s plenty of what ifs here but there’s also a ton of logic.  It’s hard to rewrite history as well but it’s hard to argue that bringing Bonderman up as early as the Tigers did was a good move, especially in hindsight.

I agree with plenty you say, but a couple notes:

While he may have thrown a lot of pitches at a young age, the injury problems he’s had do not seem to be the type you would expect from being over-worked. Had Bonderman not had these health problems, I suspect that he would have continued being a solid major league pitcher, but perhaps not reached his potential for lack of a third pitch. The lack of that third pitch now is important given that he doesn’t have the velocity he once had.

Posted by Randy on April 21st, 2010 at 11:34 pm

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