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03/28/09 7:16 PM ET

Bonderman likely to miss first start

Leyland wants right-hander to continue to build arm strength

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- What looked like one rotation spot for the Tigers to fill in this final week of Spring Training now looks like two, for the time being. With Jeremy Bonderman trying to regain his velocity from the right shoulder soreness that sidelined him for three weeks, the club is preparing for him not to be available for at least the first turn through the rotation.

"I would tell you today that, in my own personal opinion, it's highly unlikely that he will be ready for the season to start," manager Jim Leyland said Saturday.

Bonderman remains set to start for the Tigers on Sunday, when they host the Braves at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla. He could get another start later in the week, allowing him to gain some more innings. But at this point, stretching him out is not the issue. The key for Detroit is to get his arm strength back close to normal after he missed more than half of last season.

Bonderman was diagnosed last June with a circulatory disorder that caused a blood clot under his right shoulder. The remedy was surgery that included the removal of a rib. He spent the offseason working out normally, and progressed quickily once he headed to Spring Training early for his throwing program.

Just before the start of the Spring Training schedule, however, Bonderman came down with a sore shoulder that prompted an MRI exam from team physician Dr. Stephen Lemos. The diagnosis was nothing more than swelling, but the time lost put him on a schedule where every outing became important to get him ready.

His first outing in a camp game showed the rust on the arm. His second one was a bigger concern for him because of his velocity, around 87-88 mph rather than the low 90s.

The Tigers believe he'll get it back, and relatively soon. But not soon enough to be ready for next week.

"I could put Bonderman on [the roster] right now, if I want him to throw 88 mph on Opening Day," Leyland said. "If I'm willing to do that and pay the price of having to take him out after a few pitches to build the arm strength back up, I can put him on. But is that smart? That's not smart to me.

"He knows [the arm strength] is going to come back, but it's not quite there yet, so I'm not going to rush him."

Velocity was part of the problem Bonderman had when he was dealing with the blood clots. His average fastball fell from 93 mph in 2006 to 91 last year, according to fangraphs.com.

The Tigers have had a competition going throughout camp for the one opening in the rotation, a battle that includes 20-year-old prospect Rick Porcello, Nate Robertson, Dontrelle Willis and, to some degree, swingman Zach Miner. Leyland told Miner a week ago that he was all but certain to head to the bullpen, but Leyland now admits the plan on Miner is open to change.

"When I said 99.9 percent [certain Miner would pitch in relief], that's why I left it open," Leyland said, "because I knew what was happening at that time. So I would say the percentage is a little bit [less] than that right now."

Despite Leyland's assertion that Bonderman won't be ready, it was too early for an answer whether Bonderman would start on the disabled list. In a normal April, that might not be an issue; the Tigers could've feasibly gone with four starters and used an off-day or two to skip the fifth.

The problem with that now is that Detroit plays 10 straight games to open the 2009 season before hitting its first scheduled off-day on April 16, the second Thursday of the season. To go with someone out of the bullpen -- such as Miner -- to make the start and not make a DL move, the Tigers would have to go a man short in the bullpen.

Seemingly more realistic is the possibility that the Tigers could backdate a DL stint for Bonderman. If he doesn't pitch in another regular Spring Training game after Sunday, opting instead for a camp game or Minor League game, the Tigers could take off six days from a 15-day stint, which could leave him eligible at the back end of the second turn through the rotation.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.