July 28, 2013 at 2:18 pm

Tony Paul

Jeremy Bonderman helping Tigers bullpen? It's not that far-fetched

Jeremy Bonderman had some success in the major leagues this season with the Mariners. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Calm down, Tigers fans. Jeremy Bonderman isn’t the Tigers big summer bullpen acquisition.

In fact, the Tigers never even really seriously considered he could help out there.

At least, not until he suggested it.

“It was more my decision,” Bonderman said late Friday night in the Toledo Mud Hens’ home clubhouse, about an hour south of the city he, not that long ago, helped get back to the World Series. “They wanted me to start.

“But the best opportunity to get back to the big leagues is in the bullpen. And they were all for it.”

And, really, why wouldn’t they be?

General manager Dave Dombrowski always will add where the Tigers need help. He’s done it every summer the Tigers have been in contention on his watch, bringing to Detroit the likes of Sean Casey and Jarrod Washburn and Aubrey Huff and Doug Fister and, just last July, Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez.

So there’s no question he’ll trade for a reliever or, more likely, two before Wednesday’s 4 p.m. non-waiver deadline.

But Dombrowski also is finding the price of playing poker is up, way up — to the point my esteemed colleague, Tom Gage, reported a few days ago that before Francisco Rodriguez was traded to the Orioles for a low-level minor leaguer, the Brewers had asked the Tigers for blue-chip prospect Nick Castellanos. (If that’s true, by the way, forget Ryan Braun; someone needs to ask Brewers GM Doug Melvin to piss in a cup, immediately.)

Word out of San Diego, meanwhile, is the Padres are asking for major league-ready help for right-hander Luke Gregersen, a 2015 free agent who’s been very good for quite some time but also is very much a product of his environment. This hardly ever gets brought up, but this fella is twice the pitcher at home, Petco “National” Park, than he is on the road.

Glen Perkins would be a great fit, sure — for the Tigers and a dozen other teams that aren’t in the American League Central. The Twins, you surely can understand, would prefer not to face their former closer 24 times or so over the next two years, unless, of course, the price is right. In other words, holy steep.

There are plenty of other names out there, too — and most of them also have “are you kidding me” price tags dangling from their home whites and road grays.

Welcome to the era of four wild cards, folks — where as many as 15 or more teams claim to still be in contention for a playoff spot (oh Kansas City, you’re so cute) with two months remaining in the regular season. It’s a seller’s market. Want proof? Look no further than the absurd haul the Cubs got from the Rangers for Matt Garza.

Yes, Dombrowski will get somebody. More than likely, two somebodies.

But he’s certainly not giving up Castellanos for uncertain middle-relief help, and I’m 99.99-percent certain the same is true for five-tool prospect Avisail Garcia. And that just might mean the Tigers in the coming days will end up with their seventh choice, or their ninth, or even their 15th — say, an Oliver Perez, or a John Axford, or an Addison Reed, or some guy fewer than 10 percent of Tigers fans have ever heard of.

Perez (Mariners), Axford (Brewers) and Reed (White Sox), by the way, all have something in common with Bonderman: Each man has had sustained periods of success and struggle this season in the major leagues.

So, the surprise here shouldn’t be Bonderman could actually help the Tigers bullpen this season; it’s that the Tigers weren’t the first ones to think of that when they offered him a minor league deal — to start — this month.

Time to spare

No doubt, he’s a backup plan, Bonderman. Like duct tape. Or the donut tire. But unlike the trade deadline, the Tigers aren’t rushed into making any sort commitment to him. The right-hander and the Tigers plan to figure out in three weeks, give or take, whether there’s a fit, or whether there’s not, in which case he’ll head home to his family in Washington and get ready to give it a go in some other major league camp next spring.

“Whatever they want,” Bonderman said. “It’s their call what they want to do. We’ll see what happens.”

For starters, the Tigers would like to see if Bonderman can actually be a reliever. Only 14 of his 214 major league appearances have come out of the bullpen, and all but one of those 14 were when he was breaking in, as a rookie in 2003, easing back in, from injury in 2010.

But Bonderman knows the reality of the situation. The Tigers don’t need starting pitching. If one of their fantastic five went down, Jose Alvarez would get the call. And if another was lost, the Tigers probably would turn to Shawn Hill, Bonderman’s Toledo teammate. And if it got any more dire than that, it’d probably mean Drew Smyly to the rescue.

But in the Tigers’ bullpen, outside of Joaquin Benoit and Smyly, there are a whole lot of questions — questions that, to a large extent, will still linger, regardless if Perez or Axford or Reed or whoever becomes a Tiger tomorrow.

Darin Downs, the lefty, is almost ready to return from rotator cuff tendinitis, but there again: more questions.

Bonderman won’t say it, but he sees it. There’s a chance here.

Now, it’s just up to him.

“The guy knows how to pitch,” Toledo manager Phil Nevin said matter-of-factly last week. “You don’t spend eight years in the big leagues if you don’t know how to pitch.

“The guy knows how to pitch. This is somebody that has a chance to help us.”

The Tigers, it would seem, believe that, and not just because they’re among the most loyal organizations in professional sports — hanging on, over the years, so firmly to the pant legs of Jose Valverde, Brandon Inge, Ryan Raburn and Don Kelly, like a toddler refusing to let Mom pull out of the daycare parking lot.

So Tigers brass is keeping in somewhat close contact with Nevin, working out a plan for Bonderman. He’s new to this role, as a reliever. So his 30-year-old body — which is slimmer than Tigers fans will remember, but also much more heavily inked (How many tattoos now? “Too many.”) — has to get used to that.

What does that mean?

Well, it means Bonderman will have to get used to pitching on back-to-back days, as he already has once for Toledo. It means he’ll have to get used to entering in the middle of an inning, rather than the beginning; he hasn’t done that yet. And it also means he’ll have to get used to warming up in a hurry, which is perhaps most critical of the three.

“How’s his body gonna respond to his role, something he hasn’t done before, pitching that many days a week,” Nevin said. “That’s the tell-tale for us.”

In fact, the raw numbers, in many ways, are less important than all that.

Though, in many ways, the numbers are on Bonderman’s side.

Not quite there

Bonderman has had some success in the major leagues this season. While his ERA was 4.93 over seven starts before the Mariners designated him for assignment earlier this month, he did have a four-start stretch — against the Yankees, Astros, Angels and A’s — in which his ERA was 1.42, his WHIP 1.066, and his opponents’ batting average .202. (Overall, his opponents’ average was .267; Justin Verlander’s is .266).

Nevin is correct when he says Bonderman was more bad than good in the majors this year. Bonderman, though, hardly dominated. He struck out 16 in 38.1 innings; at his peak with the Tigers, in 2006, he struck out 202 in 214 innings.

Bonderman acknowledged his arm strength isn’t yet all the way back following Tommy John surgery — nor is it supposed to be, considering he only went under the knife last April. And the readings on his fastball Friday at Fifth Third Park confirmed as much — 89 mph, 90, 91 and 92, and, frankly, the gun was being generous, at least if you believe the pop of a mitt. As he gets used to letting it fly in one-inning intervals, the velocity should rise, but probably not much.

His slider, once one of the best in baseball, isn’t what it was, either. It curves more, and darts less.

But Tigers fans will be happy to know the changeup — the pitch Bonderman, for years, tried perfect in Detroit, to absolutely no avail — appears to be shelved, exchanged for a new pitch he’ll try to get left-handers out with, a split-finger fastball. He got a routine grounder with it Friday night.

“I threw it a little bit early in the year in Tacoma, and I kind of went away from it for a little while because I wasn’t it for strikes enough,” Bonderman said. “I switched my grip and it seems to better now.”

He’s throwing it for strikes. Actually, he’s throwing all of his pitches for strikes. What Bonderman has lost in velocity and, seemingly, movement, he’s trying to make up for with excellent command — which is on display for Toledo, as he has yet to allow a walk in five one-inning appearances. (Answer: “The chief problem for the Tigers’ bullpen.” Question: “What are, walks?”) For that matter, he’s only allowed one hit and no runs. And before you say Triple A doesn’t give you a decent gauge, consider this: The Buffalo Bisons, Toledo’s foe this weekend, are carrying a number of hitters who’ve had success in the majors, some even this year with the Blue Jays. And if Triple A’s a cake walk, Valverde’s 5.63 ERA and 2.000 WHIP would be better than what it was in Detroit this year; it isn’t, not even close (5.59, 1.241).

There’s one other set of numbers worth noting: Bonderman’s worst inning so many years with the Tigers, the first inning, was by far his best in his seven starts with the Mariners. The numbers: .190 average, .227 on-base, .238 slugging.

And one inning at a time is all the Tigers would be asking of him.

That’s if, of course, they ask him at all.

tpaul@detroitnews
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