Tigers wish Robertson well after trade
Willis, Bonderman win Detroit's competition for starting roles
SARASOTA, Fla. -- All through Spring Training, Dontrelle Willis, Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman pulled for one another in their comebacks even as they competed against one another for spots in the Tigers' rotation. They would all be Major League starters again, Bonderman figured, but one of them would be starting somewhere else.
They'll still be pulling for Robertson, but they'll be following him in South Florida. Detroit solved its rotation competition Tuesday by trading the longtime Tiger to the Marlins, his original organization, in exchange for left-handed pitching prospect Jay Voss.
The deal includes cash going from the Tigers to the Marlins to help pay Robertson's $10 million salary for this season, the final year of his contract.
The move means Willis and Bonderman will fill out the Tigers' rotation. Willis will start the final game of the opening series at Kansas City on April 8. Bonderman, who has to serve a three-game suspension to start the season, will start at home against Cleveland on April 10.
It was the best-case scenario out of a rotation competition that included $34.5 million in payroll for 2010 but just 14 starts combined in 2009.
"I give him a lot of credit," team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said, "because he's in a spot where, for him, he worked very hard to get back to this point where all of a sudden he's got a spot. They acquired him to be in their rotation."
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It also solves the most pressing question surrounding Tigers camp. Robertson, Bonderman and Willis were all under contract at salaries for $10 million or more this season, the final year of all their contracts. All three, however, were also coming off injury-shortened 2009 seasons that included multiple stints on the disabled list.
All three pitched impressively in Spring Training, commanding the strike zone and inducing swings and misses. Robertson, having come off elbow and groin surgeries last year, was impressive with the return of his biting slider and the ability to change speeds, helping him rack up 19 strikeouts over 19 2/3 innings to go with a 2-1 record and 3.66 ERA.
The Tigers were widely expected to try to trade whoever ended up being the odd man out. That ended up being Robertson, whose outings were well-scouted as Spring Training unfolded.
"I think we would've felt comfortable [starting] any of them," Dombrowski said, "but [Bonderman and Willis] were the guys that were going to be our fourth and fifth starters. If we would not have made a deal, at that point, we probably would've put Nate in the bullpen."
That was where Robertson began last season, a move that was difficult to accept.
"I think it's good," manager Jim Leyland said of the trade. "He probably would've not been a happy camper if it would've worked out that he was in the bullpen. Like I said, he's been a good soldier here for a long time. We appreciate everything he's done for us, and we wish him nothing but the best."
Instead, they put Robertson back where his professional career began. The Tigers acquired him from Florida as a prospect prior to the 2003 season as part of the trade that sent Mark Redman to the Marlins. Detroit called up Robertson down the stretch of the 2003 campaign, and he had been a part of the team ever since. He was one of just three Tigers who had been continuously with the club dating back to that infamous 119-loss season, along with Bonderman and Brandon Inge.
Robertson's 168 starts rank seventh in franchise history among left-handed pitchers. However, he made just six starts for Detroit last year to go with 22 relief outings. He went 2-3 with a 5.44 ERA. He has also been the one Tigers player who lives in the Detroit area in the offseason.
"As far as Nate, it's bittersweet," said Willis, himself a former Marlins player. "He's going to go out there and have a chance with a good team. He's a close friend of mine. I'm sad to see him go, because he's a big part of this organization. He's been around for a while. Like me, he's on his way back to throwing the ball well. And I'm sure he's going to have big things to do in Florida."
Before that happens, however, Robertson had a tough call from Dombrowski to tell him he was no longer with the Tigers.
"I've known Nate a long time," Dombrowski said, "and he was a little shaken, because he had done so much. He said, 'My heart's in Detroit, and I really would've loved to be with the club. But I understand business.' And I'm sure that he'll go out and pitch well for Florida, too. The initial shock of getting dealt is always there, and that's how I would describe it."
Voss, who will turn 23 in April, went 3-1 with a 2.72 ERA over 40 appearances combined between Class A Jupiter and Double-A Jacksonville. He allowed 40 hits over 49 2/3 combined innings with 46 strikeouts. He throws a fastball in the low 90s to go with a slider that helps him as a lefty specialist as well as a changeup.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.