- Phil Rogers
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Jeremy Bonderman isn't old enough to have a legal drink. That doesn't mean he can't celebrate, however.
Dave Dombrowski hopes his pitching prodigy gives Detroit Tigers fans reason to party Wednesday night. When Bonderman makes his debut against Minnesota, he'll be pitching above the Class A level for the first time. He'll also become the youngest player in the majors, having only turned 20 last October.
Bonderman seemed slated for Double-A before emerging as one of the biggest surprises of the spring. He jumped onto Alan Trammell's radar screen in his first side session and stayed there until he had a spot in a starting rotation that doesn't include a single member who has spent a full season in the big leagues.
Are Dombrowski, the Tigers' president and general manager, and Trammell out of their minds? It didn't look like it on Opening Day, when Mike Maroth worked seven strong innings in losing 3-1 to the Twins.
But in Maroth, Adam Bernero, Nate Cornejo and Gary Knotts, the Tigers are giving jobs to guys who have had some previous success in the big leagues or at least shown potential in Triple-A. Bonderman, however, is in Dombrowski's words "an unusual case.''
Even though many prospects face a high level of competition in college, few pitchers ever make a smooth transition from Class A to the big leagues. None come to mind since Dwight Gooden, who made the jump in 1984. But the Tigers say they believe Bonderman has both the arm and the maturity to make that leap.
"He showed some much ability this spring,'' Dombrowski said. "He has outstanding stuff on the mound ... You don't find too many arms like that.''
Bonderman throws in the high-90s with a plus curveball and solid slider. He throws all three pitches for strikes. In spring training, he was 0-2 with a 6.26 ERA over 23 innings. His final totals would have been better but Cleveland slapped him around last Friday after Trammell told him he was coming to Detroit.
"I think he can handle this,'' Trammell said. "I'm going to stick to my decision.''
Bonderman is no David Clyde. He's not a baby being tossed into the meat grinder. He's been toughened up along the way.
While Bonderman is young, he has persevered over many hurdles to make it this far. He opened eyes as a high school sophomore pitching for Team USA in the world championships. He was then 17, a year older than most people in his high school class, and decided not to follow the conventional path.
Bonderman did the work necessary to pass his G.E.D. test after his junior season at Pasco High in Pasco, Wash. Because he had turned 18, it was deemed he could enter the draft.
Many teams were leery but Oakland snagged him with the 26th pick overall in the 2001 draft. His contract negotiations turned contentious, in part because owner Steve Schott balked at investing heavily in a kid who hadn't finished high school. It took all summer but Bonderman eventually wound up with a $1.35 million bonus.
Before Bonderman could truly get comfortable in the Athletics' organization, general manager Billy Beane shipped him to Detroit as part of the three-team deal that sent Jeff Weaver from the Tigers to the New York Yankees. That's turned into a terrific deal for Detroit as Dombrowski also got Beane to include first baseman Carlos Pena and reliever Franklyn German, who is viewed as a future closer.
Bonderman's raw numbers don't tell the story, say the Tigers. He was 9-9 with a 3.79 ERA in 27 starts between Modesto and Lakeland last year. In addition to his talent, he showed mental toughness.
Dombrowski, Trammell and pitching coach Bob Cluck put Bonderman under the microscope in spring training. They came away convinced that he was ready to compete against the best hitters in the world. They also concluded that he was emotionally prepared to handle the disappointment which would come with the inevitable bad outings.
"We talked a great deal about his situation,'' Dombrowski said. "With young pitchers, the last thing you want to do is something that is going to hurt them in terms of their natural development. All in all, we decided that would not be the case. We know there will struggles at times. We realize that will happen. But we want to make sure all of these pitchers can handle it, and we think Bonderman can.''
It's a risky proposition. Purists will say the Tigers have too much to lose and not enough to gain by giving Bonderman only an abridged taste of the minor leagues. After all, they are a lock for a 10th consecutive losing season and an excellent bet for another 100-loss season.
But I'd turn that view of the risk-reward ratio around and look at it as a positive for Bonderman.
If there was any way the Tigers could figure into a race, the last place you'd want to find an unproven 20-year-old is on the big-league roster. He would feel every setback much more heavily and there would be a real temptation to ride him too hard when he pitched well.
Look at Kerry Wood. He not only won a Rookie of the Year award in 1998 but also joined Sammy Sosa in turning an ordinary season into a thrill ride. The Cubs battled the Mets and Giants in a three-team race for the wild-card spot -- with no more than one game separating the leader from the runnerup after Aug. 1 -- that ended in a tie between the Cubs and San Francisco.
Jim Riggleman wasn't reckless in his handling of Wood. But he threw a lot of pitches -- as all young pitchers not named Mark Prior will -- and wound up going beyond the 120-pitch barrier several times. The following season he had reconstructive elbow surgery.
Trammell won't have similar problems with Bonderman. He can avoid giving him too many pitches in any game or too many innings over the season. The Cubs allowed Prior to throw 170 innings last year in his first full year as a pro. The Tigers probably shouldn't let Bonderman go much beyond that.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Before Bonderman gets to 170 or 180 innings, he's going to have start out with 30 nice ones in April. The Tigers are betting that will be the start of a great career.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.
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