As Jeremy Bonderman continues his rehab stint with AAA Toledo this week, it appears the Tigers will soon have a tough decision to make. Bonderman's rehab assignment runs out June 15, at which time the Tigers must recall the righthander.
Bonderman has pitched well enough in the minors so far, but his velocity is still down as he tries to come back from surgery last year to alleviate a clotting problem in his right shoulder. The loss of velocity has to be concerning to all involved, as Bondo has never been a finesse type pitcher. Prior to his injury, he routinely featured a mid-90s fastball and sharp, hard slider.
Unfortunately, he has never been able to gain a feel for his changeup, and has been strictly a two pitch pitcher. If one of his pitches is not there, he could be rendered ineffective. If Bonderman can find his old form, he figures to join an already stacked rotation in Detroit. In order to add him, however, someone must get pushed out.
Obviously Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson aren't going anywhere. The successes that these two have enjoyed so far in 2009 are well documented. Both men are horses that pitch deep into games and have shown the consistent ability to shut down opposing hitters.
Dontrelle Willis has so far shown that he is once again capable of working in the strike zone and getting major league hitters out. Willis has made it back from his anxiety disorder and in his three starts this season has looked like a pitcher with a plan, and looked like a pitcher with the stuff to dominate, even if the results are still a bit inconsistent.
The questions about whether or not Willis can help the Tigers should be put to rest. He can and he is. The Tigers entered this season sans a lefthanded starter, and Willis not only provides that, but he provides a track record of logging innings and getting lefty hitters out. Couple his success with his contract, and you can be sure that his rotation spot is safe for the immediate future.
Armando Galarraga's tale has been that of two pitchers. He began the season by winning three of his first four starts with a 1.85 ERA, but when the calendar turned to May he fell off quite a bit, going 0-4 with an ERA north of 9.00 in his next five starts.
His effort last night versus Baltimore showed significant progress. He did allow 10 hits, including two homeruns, but he was much better at limiting damage. It was a huge step in the right direction. His early season performance, coupled with his stellar year in 2008, keeps him in the rotation for at least one more turn. If he continues to improve, I can't see the Tigers making a move with him. If not, he has minor league options left and could be sent down to Toledo to work out his problems.
That just leaves us with the young Rick Porcello. I'm sure that when Porcello made the club out of spring training this year, the plan was for him to hold down the fort and get some experience until Bonderman and/or Willis were healthy enough to return. The plan was a good one. The kid gets a taste of the big leagues, a pat on the back, and a ticket to Toledo or Erie for more seasoning. But the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
All Porcello has done with his opportunity is win his past five starts while sporting an ERA of 1.50 over that span. He had a rough start to his year, but has begun throwing his curveball much more frequently and found success. He works quickly, keeps his pitches and his pitch counts down, and has shown poise beyond his years.
Porcello has been compared to Brandon Webb, Carlos Zambrano, and Roy Halladay, and he's been putting up numbers like Dwight Gooden. The Tigers are trying to protect his arm and keep his workload down, but they are also trying to win, and shutting down a pitcher who is putting up the kind of numbers that Porcello has been would certainly be adverse to winning. It's a tough tightrope to walk, but the Tigers' brass and Jim Leyland have been doing well so far.
So where does Bonderman fit?
Assuming Galarraga continues to improve, a demotion seems unlikely. Bonderman's lack of an off-speed pitch would suggest he is more suited for relief, but a mid to high-80s fastball doesn't usually miss many bats in the big leagues, unless you also feature good off-speed stuff.
As it stands now, barring an injury to a starting pitcher, there is no room for Bonderman. If he cannot regain his old velocity, he becomes just another albatross contract and wasted roster spot, but at least Nate Robertson will have someone to talk to in the bullpen as they wait for a call that doesn't come.
Usually these problems work themselves out, there could be an injury, or Galarraga could get sent down or traded. Maybe Bonderman finds his old form in his next couple starts and willingly works in relief.
But time is running out, by June 15 we will have the answer.