What was a core of young players has become a group the Tigers are trying to keep together. Detroit took its biggest step yet towards doing that Monday by agreeing to terms with Jeremy Bonderman on a four-year, $38 million contract.
The deal means Bonderman will remain under contract through 2010, the same timeframe to which the team signed third baseman Brandon Inge earlier this month. For a pitcher in a market that has become a financial windfall for even second-tier free-agent arms, the deal is a huge step for the Tigers, whose strength lies in the starting rotation.
"He's one of the best young pitchers in baseball," Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "People tend to forget he's only 24 years of age. He's got an outstanding slider, good fastball, his changeup's coming. We just think he's the type of guy you want to build your foundation around."
What was expected to be the trickiest decision of Detroit's offseason ended up not being a tough decision at all. Even before Bonderman put up three solid starts in the postseason, Dombrowski said the club had chosen to pursue a long-term deal once the season ended. Talks started during last month's general managers meetings and picked up during the recent Winter Meetings.
Though Bonderman struggled over the season's second half, he won three of his final four starts in the regular season, then held the Yankees to two runs over 8 1/3 innings in the decisive Game 4 of the AL Division Series. He followed that up with 6 2/3 quality innings against the A's in Game 4 of the ALCS before allowing two runs over 5 1/3 innings in a no-decision in Game 4 of the World Series at St. Louis.
It finished his third straight season of slow, steady progress since going 6-19 with a 5.56 ERA as a 20-year-old rookie in 2003, two years after the A's selected him in the first round of the First-Year Player Draft and a year after the Tigers acquired him in the Jeff Weaver trade. He posted his first winning season in 2005, going 14-13 with a 4.57 ERA before this past season's success.
He hasn't had a breakout season to become an All-Star, but he hasn't had a fallback year, either. Manager Jim Leyland said during the World Series that Bonderman needs only an effective changeup to become a potentially dominant pitcher, something that will be a priority in Spring Training. Thanks to the contract, he won't have to worry about his future while doing it.
"I'm definitely looking forward to just worrying about playing ball and not worrying about the rest of the stuff," Bonderman said Monday.
Without a long-term deal, Bonderman was eligible for arbitration this winter and could've declared for free agency as a 26-year-old after the 2008 season. It was a risk the Tigers knew they'd eventually have to face when they decided to bring him to the Majors at such a young age, though they couldn't have anticipated salaries escalating this quickly for starting pitchers on the open market. By pursuing a deal this early, Dombrowski said, the appeal of financial security was larger than it would've been next winter.
As tough as negotiations were, according to vice president/legal counsel John Westhoff, the only question was how the lucrative deals signed by Ted Lilly with the Cubs and Gil Meche with the Royals would affect the talks.
"There's no question Bondo benefited from the huge uptick in the market," Westhoff said. "But we thought this was the time to get something done. To wait until next year and hope that the market's going to down and wait until [Bonderman is] a year shy of free agency at age 26 [would've been tough]. I think our feeling was if we were going to get something done with Bondo, then this was the time to do it. We had some spirited discussions."
Bonderman will make $4.5 million next season and $8.5 million in 2008, which would've been his final two years before free agency. He'll make $12.5 million each in 2009 and 2010.
For his part, Bonderman said he was very involved in the process. The idea of going on the market wasn't all that tempting, he added, if he could get the deal he wanted in Detroit.
"There's always the idea of free agency," he admitted, "but I love the guys here. I love the team. I love everything about playing for the Tigers right now. They're a great organization."
Four Tigers remain eligible for arbitration -- pitchers Nate Robertson and Fernando Rodney, along with left fielder Craig Monroe and infielder Omar Infante -- but Detroit is expected to pursue one-year contracts with each of them. The one potential long-term deal looming is with veteran shortstop Carlos Guillen, who could become a free agent next winter.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.