There was a time not so many years ago that Dontrelle Willis was one of the best pitchers in baseball. Then one thing after another went haywire with his body and now he is looking at about his fourth comeback.
His most recent comeback attempt was with the Cincinnati Reds last summer and while manager Dusty Baker talked about what a great clubhouse guy Willis was and Willis came out and mowed people down for a few innings at a time, he always ended up losing.
In his first several starts Willis had worse luck than a bad poker player in Las Vegas. Then he had a few glitches. By the time the summer ended and the Reds packed their bags for the season, Willis was 1-6 with a .500 earned run average. That last number surprised me. I never thought it got that high. First he couldn’t get a break and then he couldn’t make a break and finally he didn’t pitch well enough to deserve a break.
Being a great guy will not keep you in the majors if you can’t get your stuff over the plate. Once known as the D-Train, Willis, who has 72 lifetime wins, kept showing flashes, but he couldn’t finish. He kept impressing Baker for a few innings at a time, but it didn’t last.
Because Willis is a good guy, friendly and open, and one of those players who has enough class to meet the media even when he has endured a tough defeat, lots of people were rooting for him to complete the comeback that once saw him win 22 games in a season.
This week Willis agreed to a new contract for 2012, but it is not with the Reds. He is joining the Philadelphia Phillies on a one-year deal for $850,000. The twist is that Philadelphia general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has informed Willis that for the first time in a Major League career dating to 2003 when he was National League rookie of the year with the Florida Marlins, that he will start the season as a relief pitcher.
There is always a market for a southpaw with any life left in his arm. Willis is only 29 (turning 30 in a couple of weeks). He is 6-foot-4 and weighs 225 pounds and he has the build to throw hard. Amaro’s thinking is pretty sharp. The Phillies don’t need any more starting pitchers. But shoring up the bullpen is always a worthwhile objective.
It is not difficult to envision Willis becoming a lights out middle reliever for two innings at a time, say the 6th and 7th. Maybe that’s what he has left, short bursts of dominance. Certainly he displayed that kind of pitching for the Reds for a few innings at once. It seems at this stage of Willis’ career this is the best possible move for him.
After passing through Detroit, Arizona and Cincinnati without winning more than one game in a stop four times since departing the Marlins, this shift has the best chance of rescuing Willis’ career. He can be a valuable component on a contending team and he might luck into a World Series title at the same time.
At the least, both Willis and baseball will know if he can still get guys out, or if he is facing the end of his career. It is easy to see Willis being reborn in this role and having a long, successful shelf life in middle relief. But after four very trying seasons, it is also just as easy to imagine him flaming out and being forced into retirement.
For a popular pitcher like Willis it’s more pleasing to picture this Amaro experiment paying big dividends to the player and the team.