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Inge, Bonderman await their fate beyond '10

Inge, Bonderman await their fate beyond '10

Johnny Damon wasn't the only Tiger openly hoping to stay in Detroit -- not just next month, but next year.

As Brandon Inge reflected on his 1,000th Major League hit last week at Comerica Park, it meant a lot to him that he had all of them with the same team, the one that drafted him. He knew the milestone was approaching but didn't think it would be a big deal until he heard the lengthy ovation from the home crowd.

"For me, you don't find that sense of loyalty in this game," Inge said. "Just in baseball, there's not as much loyalty as maybe in general. Players are traded all the time. People are moving in and out. That's just the way it kind of works. And so, I'm so appreciative that I was able to stay here with this organization the entire time. Mr. [Mike] Ilitch and this organization stuck beside me for a long time.

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"I'm appreciative. I'm glad I got them all here. A lot of guys probably get a thousand hits spread out all over. I like that I got them all here."

Nobody on the team has been in the organization longer than Inge, a Tiger since breaking into the farm system in 1998 and making the big club in 2001. No pitcher has been in Detroit for a longer stretch than Jeremy Bonderman, who began the 2003 season in the rotation and hasn't been sent down since, save for a couple rehab assignments last year.

They're the two remaining players who have been around from 119 losses in 2003 to the World Series three years later. Ramon Santiago was also on that 2003 team but spent two years with the Mariners in between.

Along with 2006 postseason hero Magglio Ordonez, perhaps no players better symbolize the potential change awaiting the Tigers than Inge and Bonderman. They've been around through the low and high points over the past eight years, but they could be entering their final month in Detroit.

Neither of them know their fate yet. The Tigers haven't officially ruled them in or out for next year, with team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski saying they'll discuss player contracts at season's end. With over $60 million in contracts expiring, Detroit has money to spend on the market, making this potentially the biggest offseason in Detroit since 2003. Whether it leaves Inge and Bonderman behind remains to be seen.

Inge's situation might end up as conflicting as the fan sentiment about him. His milestone was 10 years in the making -- partly a product of a .237 career batting average, some extra time in the Minor Leagues to try to find his stroke as a hitter earlier this decade, playing time lost over two utility stints and injuries the past two summers. His defense, of course, is his strength at third base, a position he found after starting his big league career as a catcher and where he ranks fourth on the Tigers' all-time list in games played. If there were defensive highlights records to break, he would already own that club mark.

To many Tigers fans, he's either underappreciated or overrated. But his longevity, personality and energy make him one of the most recognizable athletes in Detroit. He's also one of the rare baseball players to make Michigan his offseason home.

A little over a hundred active Major Leaguers have a thousand career hits. Just 13 of the top 100 have had all their hits with one organization, among them franchise icons Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones, Ichiro Suzuki, Carl Crawford and Vernon Wells.

"I know I didn't grow up here, but Michigan's like home," Inge said. "I've been here so much that Michgan's basically home to me, and this organization is like one big family. I'm glad that I was able to produce to get to a thousand, and hopefully I can get many many more. At the same time, I'm very appreciative that they gave me the opportunity to get to a thousand, to play this many years here."

He's now 33 with back-to-back injury-impacted seasons, but he's arguably having his best two-way season since 2006. The Tigers don't have an obvious replacement at third coming through the system for two years. They have Trade Deadline acquisition Jhonny Peralta, who's batting .308 with four homers and 14 RBIs over his last 14 games, but he, too, is a potential free agent with a $7 million club option to debate. The free-agent market isn't deep at the hot corner. The top potential name there, Adrian Beltre, never considered Detroit as a free agent six years ago.

Inge, like the Tigers, is putting off the issue until the winter.

"I'd rather just do my job," Inge said earlier this month. "And if they show an interest, then I'm more than happy to talk about it."

Inge has confidence that a Major League job will be waiting for him somewhere if he hits the open market. For Bonderman, this summer hasn't only been about trying to help the Tigers win, but also trying to prove his return as a Major League pitcher. It's an amazing spot for someone who was one of baseball's bright young starters just a few years ago.

He talks sometimes like a pitcher who has hit his 30s, rather than the 27-year-old that he is. Part of that is the experience of 1,141 2/3 innings since he cracked the Tigers rotation as a 20-year-old and tried to convince then-manager Alan Trammell to let him take the ball for 20 losses as a rookie. Part of it is also the experience of injuries that cost him the previous two seasons.

He has had to transition to a veteran pitcher in outlook and in pitches.

"You know, I never knew how to pitch," Bonderman said earlier this summer. "I just had a lot of stuff, and I was able to get away with stuff. I couldn't outstuff guys like some guys could, but I was able to do it pretty successfully. I wish I could have what I know now and have the same velocity I had back then."

Bonderman has to find who he can be with what he has. After posting a 4.06 ERA through his first dozen starts this season, he has a 6.75 ERA and .327 batting average against in his past 11 outings.

Detroit has the front line of its rotation set, with Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello all under team control for four more years, and Armando Galarraga just finishing his third season. The Tigers have to answer whether they have a prospect, such as Andy Oliver, ready to fill the fifth spot or need to bring in someone. Then they would have to decide whether Bonderman is that somebody.

Bonderman brought up retirement in a moment of frustration a month ago, but quickly dismissed it. He still loves to pitch, he says. But he also knows it's possible he might have to do it somewhere else.

"I definitely need to pitch well," Bonderman said last week. "It would definitely help to finish up well and get an opportunity to see what jobs are available next year. ... I'd like to finish up really strong and see what we can do here in the last five weeks or whatever we've got left.

"I want to end the season with confidence and see what's out there. If I can throw the ball well, then I should have the opportunity to have a few offers. I definitely would love to come back. I love it here. I love these guys and the coaching staff. The front office has been really good to me. They're great people. Mr. Ilitch is a class act as an owner. It's just a matter of finishing up strong and doing my part."

At this point, that's all a lot of Tigers can do. Inge and Bonderman have been doing it here longer than anyone else.

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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