LAKELAND, Fla. - Just two years ago, the only positive buzz heard around Tigertown centered on Jeremy Bonderman.
Back then, he was a wide-eyed, 20-year-old rookie.
The only shaving he did was in the strike zone, brushing back hitters with his All-Star-caliber fastball.
Detroit's Jeremy Bonderman is 3-0 with a 2.00 ERA and 15 strikeouts and eight walks over 18 innings in spring training.
GENE J. PUSKAR / AP Enlarge
At that point, Bonderman had never pitched above the Single-A level, yet he earned a spot in the Detroit Tigers' wretched rotation.
Bonderman worked hard. At times, he was almost unhittable.
In some circles, Bonderman was viewed as the next coming of Denny McLain - minus, of course, all the schemes and scams that altered McLain's legacy from that of a 31-game winner to that of a grossly overweight and bumbling felon.
Bonderman was placed on a lofty perch before the debacle of 2003, when the Tigers lost an American League-record 119 games and he lost 19 times in 25 decisions. The only reason Bonderman didn't join teammate Mike Maroth as a 21-game loser was because manager Alan Trammell took him out of the rotation late in the season.
Bonderman had no business being in the big leagues so soon. He wasn't ready. Detroit was so desperate for pitching, though, it was willing to overlook the talented right-hander's inexperience.
Eventually, the Tigers expect Bonderman to blossom into a bona fide star, but they have been reluctant to call him their ace.
The facts tell us he was the No. 1 guy down the stretch last season, with two complete-game shutouts, a 2.33 ERA and a 5-3 record in his last eight starts.
Now that's downright nasty pitching.
It's the kind of domination the Tigers have expected from the bashful Bonderman since he was acquired from the Oakland organization and leap-frogged Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo on his way to the Motor City.
"Bonderman is going to be a tremendous pitcher," Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "He's got a great future ahead of him. The only question that comes into play is, 'How soon will it happen on the field for him?' If he pitches like he did the last six weeks of last season, he's an All-Star pitcher. You really hate to put the onus on somebody at this point, but he has that type of potential. I think he's going to be a No. 1 starter for a lot of years."
Thirty-nine years ago, McLain won 20 games for the Tigers at the tender age of 22 in his fourth major league season.
Twenty-eight years ago, Jack Morris was 22 when he was called up for the first time.
Bonderman, who was 22 in October, is entering his third full season as a starter. He has a very unflattering 17-32 record and a 5.20 ERA.
He has taken a generous share of lumps along the way, but he has shown surprising resiliency.
This spring, for instance, Bonderman has pitched like he wants to be the Tigers' No. 1 guy, as well as their Opening Day starter. He is 3-0 with a 2.00 ERA. He has 15 strikeouts and eight walks in 18 innings covering five starts.
"I'm planning a big year for myself and a big year for the team," he said.
No one questions the validity of Bonderman's fastball, his self-confidence, or his place in Detroit's young rotation. But he won't be considered one of the game's elite pitchers until his curveball and change-up consistently find the strike zone in the regular season.
He still has plenty of time to show us that.
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