Bonderman deal bargain for Tigers
In comparison to peers, a solid young arm is a steal
This is where we are now in baseball's inflationary spiral: You sign a starting pitcher for $38 million over four years and you've got a bargain.
This is apparently what the Detroit Tigers received with Jeremy Bonderman. If this seems like a lot of money for someone whose 14 victories in 2006 tied a career high, it's all relative.
Bonderman, at 24, is noticeably younger than, for instance, Ted Lilly, who will be 31 in January, or even Gil Meche, who is 28. Lilly received a four-year, $40 million contract from the Chicago Cubs. Meche topped that with a five-year, $55 million deal from the Kansas City Royals.
So Bonderman has time to grow. Better still, he has produced better numbers than either Lilly or Meche. In a career-high 214 innings in 2006, Bonderman had 202 strikeouts against only 64 walks.
You'll search the careers of Lilly and Meche in vain looking for those sorts of numbers. In part that is because neither of them has ever pitched as many innings in a single season as young Mr. Bonderman did in 2006. Remarkable. This deal is looking better and better.
OK, Bonderman struggled some in the second half of the season. But in the postseason he had a 3.10 earned run average in three starts.
And one of those starts was a thing of absolute beauty. In Game 4, the clincher in the Division Series against the New York Yankees, Bonderman pitched 8 1/3 innings, giving up only two runs on five hits. And you will recall, the Yankees were heavily favored coming in because they had one of the most impressive lineups, not only of this season, but of any season. But they were stopped cold by Bonderman. The Yankees were sent home, the Tigers moved on, eventually all the way to the World Series.
And Bonderman also had a quality start in a Detroit victory over Oakland in the AL Championship. So, from all appearances, Jeremy Bonderman is one of those rare finds, an actual big-game pitcher. This $38 million is looking more and more like a very reasonable sum.
The Tigers were motivated to obtain a long-term deal with Bonderman because of arbitration eligibility and the fact that he could have become a free agent after the 2008 season.
On the other side of the coin, Bonderman, while extremely promising, cannot yet be clearly classified as a dominant pitcher. The potential is there, but he is not yet in the front rank of big-league pitchers.
But like everybody else with a fastball and a pulse, his value has escalated dramatically in the last six weeks. The rise in the price of pitching has been astounding for some, dismaying for others, but a real windfall for a handful of hurlers.
And it's not over yet. Among baseball people, there are two current schools of thought about what will happen next with the remaining free agent pitchers of some value.
One is that the relatively big money has already been spent by the clubs willing and able to pay, or arguably, overpay. The rest of the signings, this reasoning goes, will set no new standards for profligate pitching purchases.
The other school of thought is that, with fewer pitchers on the market and many clubs still desperate for pitching, huge paydays still could be available. Some club, this argument states, will pony up whatever it takes, and maybe more, to land one of these pitchers.
Barry Zito, the cream of the 2006-07 starting pitcher crop, looks like a $100 million pitcher, based on the contracts already signed.
Jeff Suppan appeared to be closer in overall value to Lilly and Meche than to Zito. But he didn't lose a decision after Aug. 11 in the regular season for the St. Louis Cardinals. And he had a brilliant pair of starts -- one run, five hits allowed over 15 innings -- in the NL Championship Series against the New York Mets. Suppan won the NLCS MVP award in the process and the Cardinals went on to win the World Series. Given the current pitching market, Suppan's timing turned out to be impeccable.
And there are other free agent pitchers of varying reputation and health who may find riches beyond their previous dreams in this free-spending fiscal climate.
But for the moment, we have Bonderman receiving $38 million over four years. Two months ago, news of this contract would have made you say: "Wow, what happened with the Tigers? They win one pennant and right away they overpay?"
Today, this contract makes you say: "That's still a lot of cash, but with everything else that's happened, hmmm, maybe it's all right."
It's all relative. And it's all the market for pitching. What would have seemed to be the work of spendthrifts just weeks ago, now appears to be, relative to the rest of the game, an astute expenditure.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.