2005 was supposed to be "the year" for Jeremy Bonderman. And for the first three months, he appeared to be on his way. Going up to the All Star break, Bonderman had 11 wins, an ERA under four, and was making a strong case to be placed on the All Star squad (eventually Boston righty Matt Clement was given the final slot, much to the dismay of Tiger fans).
But then the wheels came off. Bonderman seemed to tire as the season was wearing on. Then he took a line drive right off his wrist, which seemed to shake him when he returned. He was finally shut down for good in September due to a sore elbow, which is never something you want to hear when it comes to a pitcher, especially someone who was just 22 at the time and had already thrown over 500 innings at the big league level.
That could of course spell trouble for Bonderman, as a sore elbow and decrease in velocity are often strong indicators of worse to come. The Tigers have kept quiet on the situation, but without any semblance of a contingency plan in place, it appears they're confident that Bonderman will be at full strength when he arrives in Lakeland next month.
But for the Tigers to compete, they need more than for Bonderman to just be at full strength. Bonderman has made strides each year, increasing his win total, lowering his ERA and increasing his strikeout-to-walk ratio. Unfortunately, Bonderman still put together just nine win shares. Conversely, Jake Peavy, San Diego's emerging ace, had 17. (Visit The Hardball Times for an explanation of win shares)
But for the Tigers to have any shot at competing with the world champion White Sox, the upstart Indians and the re-stocked Twins, they'll need for Bonderman to do more than just lower his ERA by another few tenths of a run.
The Tigers know what they'll get out of Mike Maroth and Nate Robertson, as both have likely hit the age where they've peaked production wise. And both give the Tigers a chance to win most days when they take the mound, which is what they'd hope for out of middle-of-the-rotation starters.
The organization is also confident that Kenny Rogers will be able to contribute much like he did in '05, when he posted 14 wins and a 3.46 ERA. That positions him well as a prototypical #2 starter. While the rotation might be re-ordered a bit to keep from the Tigers starting three lefties in a row, that still leaves the Tigers without their ace.
Bonderman showed stretches in '05 where he looked ready to take over that role. Now in his fourth year, it's time for Bonderman to truly step up and take the reigns as the top starter on the club. And that doesn't just mean the best starter in a group of #3 starters. The Tigers need an ace, and need one that would be the ace on a good number of the other teams in baseball. That's what Bonderman has to do this year – become that guy.
If the Tigers have any hopes of competing, they're going to need a lot of things to go right. But it all starts with Bonderman.