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Verlander reports Bonderman in fine form

Verlander reports Bonderman in fine form

DETROIT -- Justin Verlander said the throws have life on them, more than he saw last year. He talked about making adjustments, going back to the basics. He's really excited about the progress.

He wasn't talking about himself. He was talking about Jeremy Bonderman.

It's the kind of talk the Tigers need to translate into results if they're going to have a complete rotation, or if Bonderman is going to turn the corner in his contract year.

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So far, so good.

"We play catch together most of the time, and he's got a lot of life on the ball," Verlander said last week. "And that's something that I hadn't seen over the last year or so. I'm really excited about where he's headed."

He isn't the only one.

"He feels great," Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "He feels healthy. His ball's alive and everything we've heard about him, which has been great, Justin was telling me firsthand."

Verlander spends most of his offseason at his home in Lakeland, Fla., so working out at the Tigers' Spring Training complex is just a short commute. For Bonderman, who lives in the opposite corner of the country in Washington state, Lakeland is the final step of his workout program. He ventured down there soon after the holidays, and the Tigers wanted him to keep throwing there rather than break for the winter caravan and TigerFest.

For the first time in a couple years, it's a workout program that didn't include injury rehab. After blood vessel constriction in his shoulder essentially cost him the last two seasons, he might be back on track.

The Tigers are counting on it. They've written him into the fourth spot in the rotation since October, and they haven't wavered. It isn't his spot to win in a competition. It's his spot.

"I don't want to look past a guy like Jeremy Bonderman and how important that is," Dombrowski said.

If the Tigers had doubts about Bonderman returning, they might've taken a flyer on more pitching help, or reached out to Jarrod Washburn, or maybe scouted one of the handful of surgically repaired veterans still on the open market who are holding workouts for teams. Heck, they might have decided to stretch out Phil Coke as a starter from the outset of camp.

Those things aren't happening, a giant statement about the faith the Tigers have in Bonderman not only coming back healthy, but effective.

The last time Bonderman really fit both of those categories was the first half of 2007, on the heels of the four-year, $38 million contract he signed. He entered the All-Star break that year with a 9-1 record, a 3.48 ERA, 98 strikeouts over 106 innings, and averaging better than six innings per start. He had a legitimate case to be an All-Star, but he lost out to Josh Beckett and a couple others. He had the look of a young pitcher on the verge of stardom.

That now seems like ancient history. After winning his first start after the break to go to 10-1 and tossing a quality start in a no-decision his next time out, he went 1-8 with an 8.23 ERA over his final 10 starts that season. He tried to pitch through inflammation in his elbow, and the Tigers eventually shut him down for the final three weeks of a pennant race.

He came back the next year and pitched OK, but couldn't shake off nagging numbness in his hand and fingertips. Again, he didn't complain about it, but it grew progressively worse until he finally had to have it checked out. That's when team medical officials found the constriction.

The Tigers hoped that surgery would bring him back healthy for 2009, but lingering discomfort around his shoulder left him back in Lakeland to start the season. Not until June did he return to the big leagues, and his loss to the White Sox was discouraging enough that he went back on the DL until rosters expanded in September. His most noted feat last year was earning a three-game suspension for hitting Delmon Young with a pitch during the Tigers' forgettable series finale at home against the Twins Oct. 1.

Never would the Tigers have imagined Bonderman becoming a lost contract when they agreed to terms a few years ago. Yet, go back to those final 10 starts of 2007, and he's 4-13 with a 6.21 ERA over 23 starts since July 2007.

That said, he's just 27 years old. It's not a lost contract quite yet.

The Tigers have hope that Bonderman will regain some velocity on his fastball, which dropped from an average speed of 93.3 mph in 2006 to 90.8 mph last year according to fangraphs.com. To pin all his fortunes on power, though, overlooks another trend over the last few years with the disappearance of his slider. He's had it, and he has thrown it, but not as much.

Thirty-five percent of Bonderman's pitches in 2007 were sliders, again according to fangraphs. That dropped to 29.8 percent in 2008, when he couldn't feel the ball at times because of the numbness. It took another drop last year to 20.8 percent.

At this point, Bonderman's annual quest for an offspeed pitch is secondary. The Tigers can live with Bonderman as a two-pitch pitcher this year, as long as the fastball and slider are effective. They just want him back. His work so far gives them reason to believe he will be.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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