TigsTown Analysis: Re-Thinking Bonderman

Since 2002, when the Tigers traded Jeff Weaver, one of the pieces received in that deal has been billed as a potential future ace. That player is Kennewick, WA native Jeremy Bonderman. Bonderman was expected to struggle early on, as he debuted at just 20 years of age. Everyone has long known Bonderman is full of potential, but at what point do we re-evaluate his true ceiling?

Since Bonderman became the first high school junior ever drafted by a Major League Baseball franchise, he was viewed as having the "stuff," mentality, build, and determination to become a front of the rotation starter at the big league level. With a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and a slider that can make a hitter's knees buckle, how could anyone argue with that prognostication? Bonderman showed flashes of brilliance during his rookie campaign, but the season was largely a learning experience on a team that lost 119 games.

Heading into 2004, baseball analysts felt Bonderman was getting close to taking the leap towards the front of Detroit's rotation. After a successful season that saw the Tigers and Bonderman improve dramatically, it was a common belief that Bonderman was ready to burst onto the national scene in 2005. Jeremy continued to improve in 2005, but didn't quite make "the leap." However, you heard very few concerns considering he still hadn't turned 23.

In fact, following the 2005 season, I argued that the Tigers may be wise to start working towards a long-term deal for Bonderman; something similar to what the Oakland Athletics gave their ace, Rich Harden. If the Tigers were able to buy out his arbitration years, and possibly his first couple of free agency years, it may have been a boon for an organization on the rise. The Tigers passed on that possibility, and instead went to arbitration with Bonderman; a decision that appears to have been wise.

Is it time to start rethinking the realistic ceiling of the pitcher many feel can still become the staff ace? Sure, he has improved in nearly every facet of his game, in each of his first four seasons, but has he really made the progress one would expect from a future superstar?

What has Bonderman done to make us believe he will be our future ace? He has improved his strikeout rates to nearly one per inning. He has improved his walk rates, reaching nearly 3.5 strikeouts for every walk issued. He has improved his ERA in every season at the big league level. He has proven to be able to handle a heavy workload without noticeable fatigue down the stretch, and he's even begun inducing more groundballs despite rising strikeout rates. In short, Bonderman has done many things worthy of praise, and many things that any analyst could still cite as pointing towards future dominance and stardom. With all that data pushing back in my face, where do I come off suggesting that Bonderman may not have the ceiling we all thought he possessed? Well, Bonderman still has not developed a reliable third pitch, often considered a necessity for a top of the rotation stud. While he has lowered his walk rates significantly, he has yet to become a more efficient pitcher, and is often forced from starts in the sixth or seventh inning. He is still maddeningly inconsistent; putting together an absolute gem one day, and then five days later giving up six runs in five and a third. He also still struggles to demonstrate the killer instinct that seems so prevalent in big time pitchers.

In all honesty, does a combination of all the good and bad listed above leave anyone out there really thinking we've got a future ace on our hands, or are we simply left with a very good enigma?

Bonderman is without a doubt, a supremely talented pitcher. I just don't think he's talented enough in total, to be considered one of the elite pitchers in the game; which is exactly what an ace really is.

At this juncture, considering all the good things he's accomplished in the last four seasons, while also acknowledging those areas where he still lacks substance, I'm far more inclined to believe Bonderman will end up as an outstanding middle of the rotation starter, rather than a true number one. Jeremy has the ability to dominate a game when all his faculties are going well, but lacks the ability to dominate on a regular basis. The failure to advance his ability to dominate for long stretches is quite possibly the largest reason I'm questioning his ceiling.

With the emergence of Justin Verlander, I think Bonderman may be relegated to a role more suited to his current and future abilities. That being the role of a number two or three starter, which is still an extremely important role on the staff. If the Tigers were able to flip Jeff Weaver at a time when his value was at an all time high, and in return they received their future number two starter, I'm still very happy.

The Tigers are in the fortunate position that they don't absolutely need Bonderman to become what many believed (or wanted to believe) he would. They only need him to be a very good pitcher, rather than a consistently dominant one. There is absolutely zero doubt that Jeremy is an enormous part of the Tigers future, I just don't think we should be expecting him to lead us to the promise land. Leave that challenge to Justin Verlander.


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