NEW YORK -- When Jeremy Bonderman, Baseball America's 20th-best prospect, debuted with the Detroit Tigers as a 20-year-old in 2003, fans naturally dreamed that a decade later, he'd be pitching in a Tigers' uniform.
He is. But virtually everything else about the current situation has changed, from Bonderman's role, to the circuitous route that took him from the Tigers to a pair of years out of the game, back via Seattle, and finally, last month, into the Tigers' bullpen.
That the story continues at all is incredibly unlikely, with Bonderman currently six appearances into trying to convince the Tigers he can be their long reliever this season. But where it goes from here, no one really knows, or has even planned for. Not the Tigers, not even Bonderman himself.
"I'm just here to play," Bonderman said when we talked by his locker Friday, prior to a Mets-Tigers game at Citi Field, about whether he considers himself a starter or reliever. "I let everybody else worry about all that other stuff."
It was Bonderman himself, though, who decided that after 214 major league appearances, 200 of them starts, that he'd take a shot at coming out of the bullpen, if it meant another shot at the major leagues.
"I'd been starting earlier this year in Seattle," Bonderman said. "Detroit offered me an opportunity to come over here. And I knew I wasn't going to be able to start here. So, I wanted to relieve. I wanted my best shot at getting to the big leagues, on this team. And I kind of like it."
Bonderman actually changed the way he's pitching, even from earlier this season. With the Mariners, over seven starts, he threw his two-seam fastball roughly half the time, a slider just over 31 percent of the time, occasionally mixing in a four-seam fastball 14 percent of the time, and the occasional changeup, which Bonderman said is more of a splitter.
The results in Seattle weren't encouraging, with a 4.93 ERA and nearly as many walks as strikeouts. It was clear to both Bonderman and pitching coach Jeff Jones that something fundamental had to change, when Bonderman was signed and sent to Triple-A Toledo to prepare for bullpen work last month.
"We talk about what pitches are best to get the hitters out," Jones told me as we talked just outside the Tigers' clubhouse Friday. "And normally, guys like Jeremy, who throw a lot of two-seamers, when he's gonna throw the ball away, to a right-handed hitter, say, we may use the four-seamer there. If it's a guy we can throw the two-seam swing back to hit the outside corner, he's gonna throw that. It just depends on who the hitter is."
The result has been, rather than Bonderman pitching off of his two-seamer first and foremost, he's mixing his two-seamer, four-seamer and slider around 30 percent apiece, mixing in the splitter the other 10 percent of the time.
The results in Toledo were 9 2/3 scoreless innings. Since he's come to the Tigers, he's pitched another 9 2/3 innings, allowed just three runs, and most encouragingly, struck out 10, though he has walked six. The success, even as he's made this change mid-year, has impressed Jones.
"He's done a real nice job for us," Jones said. "You know, it's not an easy transition, after you've been a starter as long as he has. He's been in the strike zone, for the most part. You know, the experience factor's really going to help us."
Still, Bonderman's got plenty of experience in pitching, just almost none in relief.
"I think it's helped Jeremy that he was able to do this in Toledo before he got here," Jones said, adding that he and Triple-A pitching coach A.J. Sager were in regular contact about the plan for Bonderman.
Meanwhile, what's allowed Bonderman to execute that plan and get back to the major leagues, after a two-year layoff, was largely the layoff itself.
"Physically, I wasn't able to compete at this level," Bonderman said, referring to multiple injuries that had slowed him down considerably. "I wasn't gonna play anymore. But it gave me time to heal from my first surgery, and my elbow was blown out, so I needed that second surgery."
Bonderman remembered the exact date he had that Tommy John Surgery -- April 23, 2012 -- which puts him around 16 months out from that procedure, a bit beyond the typical year recovery. And even when he underwent the procedure, it wasn't with a further major league career in mind.
"I wasn't planning on coming back," Bonderman said. "I wanted it fixed so I could play with my kids, play catch with them, stuff like that."
But he said he knew it was time to return "the day I got out of my cast.
"I had a full range of motion again," Bonderman said, a reminder of just how long he'd been playing baseball while managing massive amounts of pain. "So I thought I'd give it a shot. And I kind of wanted to go out on my own terms, not going out being injured."
So back came the stuff, now enhanced by Bonderman's ability to go full-force. "It's one inning," Bonderman said, like pitching an inning in the major leagues was no big deal for someone who regularly threw six or seven. "You don't have to hold anything back. You just sort of go. You don't have to pace yourself, and you're not throwing as many pitches, so you can just let it go."
Accordingly, his four-seamer and two-seamer are checking in around 93 miles per hour in August, the best velocity showing he's had since June 2008. His splitter is just under 89, his slider around 83, so he's got more than sufficient differential within his four pitches to succeed.
But there's another component to pitching out of the bullpen, which is the preparation itself. Bonderman has a useful guide to navigating that in Jones, who almost exclusively started right up to the day he joined Billy Martin's 1980 A's, where he was made a rookie closer.
"For me, I was fortunate, because I was around guys who'd been relieving for a long time," Jones said. "So they helped me out, helped me out a lot as far as how to prepare, how to get ready. Because I was the same way as most starters who make that transition. I was throwing too much. So finally, some of the guys said, 'Hey, you can back off. You're really throwing a lot.' And I appreciated that, because I didn't have a lot of experience out of the bullpen."
Jones has tried to pass that along to Bonderman as well, even offering him some exercises to keep his adrenaline in check when he enters the game.
"The longer they relieve, the more they know what they want to do when they enter the game," Jones said of players making Bonderman's change. "What we talk about also, is they get eight more [warmup pitches] on the mound. What I always tell the guys, whichever pitches you think you're going to use right away, make sure those are ready. That way, if you're ready, and you don't get in right away, you can work on the other pitches."
So here's what we know: Bonderman is healthy, finally. He's only 30. He throws four pitches, and he likes coming out of the bullpen. Is this where his future lies?
"Well, we're still evaluating him, honestly," Jones said. "Because he's been here such a short period of time. But the thing I like about what he's done is, he's made the transition pretty seamlessly. And he's barely a year removed from the surgery. Normally, guys that have the surgery get stronger [after] a year, year-and-a-half, two years."
Bonderman isn't ready either to call himself a reliever, now and forever, just yet.
"I don't know. I don't even think about it," Bonderman said, quickly, when I asked if he thought the bullpen was a longer-term fit for him. "I just wanted the opportunity to get back, take this route, and see where we are at the end of the year. But I like it so far. We'll see where the opportunities lie at the end of the season for me."