Lakeland, Fla. Jeremy Bonderman knew he had a right arm suited for pitching, not raising in a classroom.
So the Detroit Tigers pitcher earned a general equivalency diploma as a junior at Pasco (Wash.) High School and skipped his senior year to enter the draft at age 18.
"Taking the GED and moving on to my dream of playing baseball was what I wanted to do, and my mom and dad supported me," said Bonderman, who petitioned Major League Baseball to be eligible for the draft. "I thought I was going to go high in the first round, but I went 26th overall."
The Oakland Athletics took Bonderman in the June 2001 draft, making him the first U.S. native to be drafted after his junior year in high school. But because it took the A's two months to sign him, they couldn't place him in the minor leagues until the following season.
A year later, he was dealt to Detroit as the player to be named in a three-team trade involving Jeff Weaver, Carlos Pena and Franklyn German.
"I almost forget that I've been traded because I feel like I've been here for so long," Bonderman said. "I feel more confident and comfortable because it's my third year in the majors."
Though he's just 22, Bonderman appears to be the best starter Detroit has and is without question its most promising pitcher for the future.
On Monday against Kansas City, he will become the youngest pitcher to start on opening day in the major leagues since 1986, when 21-year-old Dwight Gooden did it for the New York Mets, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Bonderman was 11-13 with a 4.89 ERA last year after going 6-19 as a rushed prospect in 2003 for a team that lost an AL-record 119 games.
The sturdy 6-foot-2, 220-pounder closed last season in impressive fashion with a 5-3 record, 2.33 ERA and 60 strikeouts over his last eight starts. He started the stretch by striking out 14 -- the most by a Detroit pitcher since 1972 -- in his first career shutout on Aug. 23, and in his final start he had a four-hit shutout with nine strikeouts and only one walk on Sept. 30. His two shutouts tied for the AL lead.
The hard-throwing right-hander was fourth in the league with 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings, tied for fifth in batting average against (.242) and tied for sixth with 168 strikeouts.
"We love Jeremy Bonderman," Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "He's the type of player you build a pitching staff, really a franchise, around."
Detroit's Nate Robertson won a team-high 12 games last year, but acknowledged he can't match Bonderman's talent.
"He has an arm that most guys aren't blessed with," Robertson said. "When I'm in the outfield shagging balls, even from way out there, you can see each of his pitches break one way or the other right at the plate. If he adds a good changeup, he's going to be unhittable."
Bonderman's fastball flies past hitters around 95 mph, but to be consistently dominant, he needs to use the same arm motion while taking off about 10 mph.
"That's what I'm really working on," said Bonderman, who also throws a slider. "A good changeup is what I need to get to the next level."
After Tigers manager Alan Trammell tapped Jason Johnson as his starter for opening day early in spring training, he changed his mind a week before the opener and said Bonderman would start.
"I don't want to be just another guy in the rotation," Bonderman said earlier this month. "I want to be the No. 1 guy, and I know I have to earn it. That's something I want to do -- this year."
When a reporter asked Bonderman late last season what he thought about the team going after a No. 1 starter, such as Derek Lowe, in the offseason, he smirked and scoffed as if such a player wasn't needed.
"He's an established big-league pitcher, but I'm glad the team didn't go after him and chose to stick with the same starters we had last year," Bonderman said during spring training. "I don't think starting pitching is going to be the problem some people seem to think it will be."