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Published: Monday, 5/17/2004

Tigers in a big rush to make Bonderman a star

Jeremy Bonderman had no business being in the major leagues last season.

He made the jump far sooner than anyone expected.

Bonderman had never pitched above the Single-A level until winning a spot in Detroit s starting rotation in spring training.

But the woeful Tigers, desperate for pitching prospects or any prospect for that matter, were willing to overlook his inexperience.

He skipped right over Double-A and Triple-A on his way to the Motor City. It was a mistake. A huge one. Bonderman would have been much better off winning and dominating in the minors, rather than losing and struggling to find his identity as a rookie in the majors.

What was the rush?

The 20-year-old right-hander lost 19 games last season. He won just six times while putting up a staggering 5.56 ERA on a terrible Tigers team that dropped 119 games.

It is a good thing manager Alan Trammell banished Bonderman to the bullpen in September - five of his final six appearances came in relief - or else he would have joined teammate Mike Maroth as the only other 20-plus game loser in the big leagues.

Simply put, Bonderman s first year was a flop. He had just two pitches, a 95 mph fastball and a slider, and he had trouble getting both over the plate. Even when he did manage to find the strike zone, opposing hitters pounded his pitches all over the park, or out of it.

Opponents had a .482 slugging percentage against Bonderman, the second-highest total in the league. They batted a whopping .294 against him and compiled a .352 on-base percentage.

Bonderman just could not keep people off the bases, or from circling them. He gave up 10.72 hits per nine innings. He surrendered 118 runs in 28 starts, including 23 home runs. He uncorked 12 wild pitches. On top of that, he dropped nine consecutive decisions over an 11-start stretch from May 10-July 3.

It was an ugly season indeed. It also was one that could have been avoided. Trammell, who also was 20 when he broke camp with Detroit in 1978, will tell you that last year served as a learning experience for Bonderman. But Bonderman s poor results

tell a much different story.

It takes a special pitcher to jump from Single-A to the majors. Few get the opportunity to do so, and even fewer excel. Dwight Gooden was a rare exception. So was Bob Feller.

Too often, young pitchers are rushed to the majors before their time. That was the case with Bonderman.

There was no need for the Tigers to rush him to the big leagues, even if they do see him as their ace of the future.

Why not let Bonderman work on getting control of his fastball in the minors rather than let major league hitters tee off on him?

With Jeremy, we all like what we see, Trammell said. He s got the kind of stuff that potentially can make him an ace. He s not ready for that status quite yet. But to me, he s a big-league pitcher. He s not yet polished, but he s growing.

Bonderman, 6-2 and 220 pounds, begs to differ with those who think last season was a wash for him.

I learned a lot, he said. I m able to stay more composed this year. I m able to make adjustments. I think I m right where I need to be.

I have a lot more confidence. I m more relaxed. I know what s going on. I m just able to relax and play the game and learn a little more than last year. Last year, I was just trying to stick around.

Bonderman has added a circle change-up to his fastball-slider combination. And he points to his 3-2 record and 5.36 ERA this season as proof that he has arrived as a major league pitcher in just his second season.

There are many who would beg to differ, including me.

Granted, Bonderman has been blessed with a strong arm and could one day become a 20-game winner in the majors. However, the 21-year-old fireballer has a 9-21 career record and has not yet proven he belongs with the big boys.

The Tigers do not seem to care. They are only concerned with making Bonderman a star.



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