Tigers better be careful with Bonderman

While it must be tempting to slot the 20-year-old Jeremy Bonderman into their rotation, the Tigers should be cautious to not overexpose the young right-hander.

Originally Published: March 24, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

For posterity's sake, let's look at the projected Tigers rotation now, before two or five of these guys are sent to the Disabled List or Toledo.

                Age  MLB Wins
Mike Maroth      25     6
Jer. Bonderman   20     0
Adam Bernero     26     4
Nate Cornejo     23     5
Gary Knotts      26     3

Cornejo and Knotts represent my best guess, based on sounds from camp and spring performances. Steve Sparks, Andy Van Hekken, and Preston Larrison -- 22-year-old Preston Larrison -- are also candidates, according to Tigers pitching coach Bob Cluck. Sparks, with 56 major-league victories, would pump up the rotation's previous wins total. Van Hekken (1) and Larrison (0) would not.

Jeremy Bonderman
Jeremy Bonderman reached the big leagues with just 157 innings of minor-league ball.

In general, I don't have a real problem with teams going young. As a baseball executive once told me, if you've got a choice between losing 100 games and not getting better or losing 110 games and getting better, then you might as well lose 110 games. Which the Tigers could do this season.

But there's a big difference between going young with Mike Maroth and Adam Bernero and going young with Jeremy Bonderman and Preston Larrison. Bonderman and Larrison are babies, neither of them having pitched even a single inning above Class A.

Lynn Henning is one of Detroit's best baseball writers, so I consider his arguments with particular care (otherwise, I could have finished this column an hour sooner than I did). That said, when Lynn writes, "Begin by keeping Jeremy Bonderman in the rotation ... and don't stop there. Preston Larrison ought to stick, as well," I must disagree.

Let's look at Bonderman's pitching lines this spring.

      IP  H  R  W  K  HR
3/ 2   2  2  0  0  1   0
3/ 7   3  3  0  0  4   0
3/12   4  1  1  1  6   0
3/17   5  6  3  1  3   0
3/22   4  9  8  1  0   4  

Granted, that's a pretty impressive record. In 18 innings, Bonderman has struck out 14 hitters while walking only three. But you know, sometimes spring-training stats can fool you. How?

Let's go through these games, one at a time ...

March 2: Bonderman pitched the fifth and sixth innings against the Indians. Just looking at the box score, it looks like he faced Omar Vizquel, Matt Lawton ... and a bunch of guys whose names you wouldn't recognize unless you work as a copy editor for Baseball America.

March 7: Bonderman pitched three innings against the Mets, who many think will contend for a division title this year. Fortunately, neither Mike Piazza nor Roberto Alomar nor Cliff Floyd nor Mo Vaughn played.

March 12: Bonderman pitched four innings against the Blue Jays, who many think will contend for third place this year. Fortunately, neither Carlos Delgado nor Eric Hinske nor Shannon Stewart nor Vernon Wells played.

March 17: Bonderman pitched five innings against the Blue Jays, and it was the Jays' "A" team. Good work, kid.

March 22: Hammered in four innings against Cleveland's starters.

Welcome to the wonderfully wacky world of spring training, where you're only as bad as your last good outing. When people want so badly to see something, well then that's exactly what they'll see. The Tigers need pitchers, and God knows they could use some excitement. So here's a pitcher who's exciting, and let's not screw up the story by noticing that this exciting pitcher has pitched against real major-league hitters only twice this spring, and in those games he gave up 11 runs in nine innings.

The first draft of this column included stuff about Bonderman being at a great risk of injury, both physical and emotional, if he's thrown into the fray so soon.

But then I dumped that stuff, because I don't really know that it's true. I certainly believe that it's true, but then I realized I don't have to argue what I believe. Better that I argue what I know, which is that it's not supposed to work this way.

You're just not supposed to elevate a valuable player to a certain level unless he's demonstrated that he's got little to learn at the level below the one to which you're promoting him. And that obviously can't be said of Bonderman (or Larrison).

The last two 20-year-old pitchers who "earned" slots in a major-league rotation were Steve Avery (1990) and C.C. Sabathia (2000). Now, even leaving aside their dicey futures -- Avery flamed out when he was 25, and the jury's still out on Sabathia -- both had established themselves in the higher minors. Avery pitched well in 13 Double-A starts and 13 Triple-A starts. Sabathia pitched well in 17 Double-A starts.

Bonderman's not ready, and he's going to get either hammered or hurt.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.

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