Monday, November 22, 2010

Dont(rell) Call it a Comeback

Earlier today, ESPN's Jerry Crasnick reported that the Reds have come to terms on a minor league contract with former All-Star pitcher Dontrell Willis.  Honestly, it's hard to believe that Willis has fallen so far so quickly.  It seems like just yesterday that he was called up to the Marlins (2003).  Replacing the injured AJ Burnett, Willis bolted out of the gate going 14-6 with a 3.30 ERA and an 8.0 K/9 rate.  His efforts not only earned him Rookie of the Year Honors (beating out the likes of Jose Reyes, Brandon Webb, Miguel Cabrera, and Brad Lidge), but also helped his team win their second championship in seven seasons.  In 2005, Willis put together his best season going 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA, five shutouts, and a 3.09 K/BB ratio.   In the Cy Young race, he picked up 11 of the 32 first place votes, but finished a close second to Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter.  That was the high point of Willis's career.

In 2006, Willis started showing signs of decline.  He started seeing sharp increases in hit batsmen, walk rate, wild pitches, and home run rate.  His fastball, which was so effective in 2005 (worth 44.1 runs), soon became a liability by 2007 (worth -20.6 runs).*  His secondary pitches, in particular his change-up, also lost considerable value (worth -8.6 runs in 2007).  The Marlins, seeing the writing on the wall, started looking to move the the lefthander.  In a move to rebuild the franchise, the Marlins packaged Willis with All-Star Miguel Cabrera, and traded him to the Detroit Tigers for six prospects that included Andrew Miller (since released) and Cameron Maybin (since traded).  Willis was essentially a poison pill.  The Tigers knew they wouldn't have a chance of acquiring Cabrera if they didn't take him on as a project.  Considering Willis's success in the not so distant past, the Tigers bit the bullet.  In a shocking (and ill advised) move, they signed Willis to a 3 year $30M contract prior to the 2008 season.

*This is astonishing.  His fastball went from being one of the most effective pitches to one of the least effective pitches in baseball.  He lost 64.7 runs worth of value in two years.  I'm not even sure how this is possible.  If anyone knows of any other pitcher that's seen such a huge swing in value, please let me know.  

Willis's time with the Tigers could best be described as a disaster.  His once shaky control completely unraveled.  Like Mark Wohlers and Rick Ankiel before him, Willis seemed incapable of throwing strikes.  From 2008-2010, Willis appeared in 30 games (27 starts), went 3-9 with a 6.86 ERA, walked 8.7 batters per nine innings, hit seven batters, threw 14 wild pitches, and gave up 14 home runs in 123-1/3 innings.  At one point, things got so bad for Willis the Tigers placed him on the disabled list with an acute anxiety disorder, a claim Willis denied on multiple occasions. 

The Tigers, Diamondbacks, and Giants all gave Willis a shot, hoping to find lightning in a bottle.  In the end, all of the teams released him.  Now, the Reds have lined up to give Willis a shot.  Will it work out?  Probably not, but it doesn't hurt to give him a shot.  Willis is only 29 years old.  If his control can be harnessed, there's a shot (albeit small) that he can be an effective major league pitcher.  He's signed to a minor league deal, making him a low risk, high reward situation if he beat the odds and panned out.  That said, this probably Willis's last shot at the major leagues.  I wish him well.  

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