Boof Bonser is out of options, both literally and figuratively.
Just two years removed from serving as the number two starter in Minnesota’s rotation, Bonser, 28, is in the uncomfortable position of not knowing what his future with the organization may hold or if he even has a future with the organization.
The Twins currently have half a dozen pitchers under contract for 2010 that started twelve games or more last season.
Bonser, who spent 2009 rehabbing from surgery to repair tears in his labrum and rotator cuff, didn’t throw a competitive pitch until a rehab assignment in September.
Additionally, Brian Duensing and Jeff Manship also figure to make bids for spots in next year’s rotation and the team has made mention that they’ll be on the lookout to add a veteran arm or two this offseason.
So where does that leave Bonser?
The Twins could conceivably non-tender him this December, thus making him a free agent.
Given Bonser’s considerable upside and reasonable salary, it wouldn’t make much sense for the Twins—a team that used eleven different starters in 2009—to just let him walk away.
If I were a betting man—and I am—I’d put good money on the Twins giving Bonser a one-year contract and an invite to Spring Training with a very clear message that if he doesn’t pitch his way into the rotation, or a long-relief role in the bullpen, he’ll be plying his trade elsewhere.
Bonser’s descent from first-round pick and elite prospect to potential non-tender candidate has been a rapid one.
Bonser, a high school standout, was drafted with the 21st overall pick of the 2000 amateur draft by the San Francisco Giants. He was assigned immediately to the short-season league and suffered the usual up and downs high school pitchers do at that level.
The next year, however, Bonser had a breakout season pitching for the Hagerstown Suns of the South Atlantic League.
Bonser went 16-4 with a 2.49 ERA and 178 strikeouts in 134 innings pitched. In doing so, Bonser—who was just 19-years old at the time—won the South Atlantic League Most Valuable Pitcher award and earned postseason all-star honors as well.
Although he didn’t match that success in any subsequent seasons, he still rose steadily through the Giants’ farm system and was pitching in Triple-A by the end of the 2003 season.
That winter Bonser was the key-component in the now-infamous A.J. Pierzynski trade that sent Bonser, Joe Nathan, and Francisco Liriano to the Minnesota Twins.
Since then both Liriano and Nathan have surpassed Bonser, both in terms of overall production and value within the organization.
Nathan was immediately given the closer role and has proved to be one of baseball’s best in that role.
Liriano showed glimpses of brilliance and dominance before succumbing to Tommy John surgery which has since rendered him maddeningly inconsistent.
Bonser spent two seasons in the Twins’ farm system before getting called up in 2006. He spent most of the year bouncing back and forth between Rochester and Minneapolis, all the while going 7-6 with a 4.22 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 100.1 innings pitched at the major league level.
In 2007, Bonser began the year as the number two starter behind Johan Santana. Inconsistency was the name of the game as Bonser would alternate awful starts with brilliant starts. When it was all said and done he had another unimpressive line of 8-12 with a 5.10 ERA and 136 strikeouts in 173 innings pitched.
Following that mediocre season, Bonser—at the request of the front-office—made an effort to drop some weight so that he could pitch deeper into ballgames. Bonser showed great dedication and dropped 35 pounds over the winter.
The only problem was that a slimmer, sleeker Bonser still couldn’t get anyone out.
Despite being the only experienced starter in the 2008 rotation, Bonser was demoted to the bullpen by the end of May after going 2-6 with a 5.97 ERA to start the year.
Unfortunately, the results out of the bullpen weren’t much better.
Bonser pitched 52 innings out of the bullpen and tallied 5.88 ERA. He was used mostly in mop-up situations, but appeared to be re-finding his form near the end of the season. He was averaging better than a strikeout per inning and seemed to be getting back on track.
As such, Bonser spent the 2008-2009 offseason preparing both physically and mentally for a bullpen role. He was rumored to be in the mix for a long-relief spot or perhaps a setup role in front of closer Joe Nathan.
Unfortunately, Bonser’s 2009 ended before it had ever really begun. He was diagnosed with tears in both his labrum and rotator cuff and ruled out of the 2009 season early in Spring Training.
Bonser’s loss was a major reason for the early-to-mid-season struggles of the Twins’ bullpen as the team was forced to bring in castoffs like Luis Ayala to fill roles that they had no business filling.
Since then the club has acquired Jon Rauch as a top setup man and saw relievers Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, and Jesse Crain take big steps forward to solidify their roles in the bullpen.
With the aforementioned overabundance of potential starters, the Twins have plenty of in-house candidates for additional bullpen roles and not nearly enough roster space for all of them.
And that bring us back to the big question: where does that leave Boof Bonser?
As I stated earlier, Bonser is probably too intriguing of an option for the Twins to outright release him, but will he be ready to outpitch the competition this spring?
For his part, Bonser has already shown a lot of dedication and desire to make it back with the Twins.
He worked very hard in his rehabilitation to make it back ahead of schedule and pitch in meaningful games in September.
It was reported that he was showing good velocity and improved command of his pitches during his rehab assignment.
Is it a sign that Bonser has finally found the right mix of desperation and motivation to become the great pitcher he appeared to be in the minors or was this just another sign that Bonser is a great minor league pitcher who can’t make the right adjustments at the highest level?
Hopefully 2010 will be the season that question is finally answered, and when that answer comes, here’s to hoping that Boof is still wearing Minnesota pinstripes.