The Dontrelle Willis Problem
Here at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla., the Detroit Tigers made a new round of roster cuts this morning, evicting a would-be catcher, right-handed pitcher and utility infielder from the clubhouse, trimming their roster to 45.
Forty-four of the survivors are players for whom the Tigers have high hopes this season, to one degree or another. The other is Dontrelle Willis, from whom the Tigers would be happy to salvage anything of use.
There is perhaps no bigger individual train-wreck in baseball than Willis -- the 27-year-old left-hander best known for his starring role as a rookie for the 2003 World Series-champion Florida Marlins, and a 22-game winner as recently as 2005. Here are the two reasons: 1) He can't pitch effectively. 2) The Tigers owe him $22 million over the next two years.
The Willis Problem -- he has a 10.03 ERA this spring, after posting a 9.38 in 2008 -- is hovering over the Tigers' spring, darkening an otherwise upbeat camp in which Justin Verlander is once again pitching like an ace, Jeremy Bonderman is back on the mound and Gary Sheffield looks like a contender for Comeback Player of the Year. After falling apart in 2008 and bottoming out in last place, the Tigers appear as good as anyone in the weak AL Central division.
And then there is Willis. Since signing him to an ill-advised, three-year, $29 million contract extension shortly after trading for him in December 2007, the Tigers have tried everything to turn him around, including sending him to the bullpen and the minor leagues. Nothing has worked.
In the latest installment of the melodrama surrounding him, Willis on Thursday night gave up seven hits, two walks and four earned runs in a 2 2/3-inning outing against the Atlanta Braves.
But the interesting thing is what Willis did during his third inning of work Thursday: Completely on his own, and without informing his manager or pitching coach in advance, he switched to a new delivery, abandoning the streamlined move the Tigers had been working with him on since last summer, and returning to the herky-jerky windup -- with the distinctive leg-kick and back-to-the-plate turn -- that he had used for the majority of his career.
And the Tigers didn't even mind. In fact, they were practically applauding it.
"We're at a point [with Willis] where we're trying pretty much everything," Manager Jim Leyland said today. "He feels comfortable [with the old delivery]. How it will play out, I have no idea.... It's another thing to try. I don't have an answer [as to how it will work]. I wish I did."
Said pitching coach Rick Knapp: "The whole thing is trying to free him up to be who he is. He's a flow-delivery kind of guy. Maybe the more moving pieces he has, the better he is.... We want him to be himself."
Did the new/old delivery make a difference? Not to one National League scout who was in attendance Thursday night. "His command was spotty, and his velocity is still down. I had him at 91 [mph] on one pitch, but mostly he was 89. He's just not the same guy [who won 46 games in his first three seasons]. I actually felt bad for him."
With roughly two weeks until the Tigers break camp, the question of what to do with Willis must be answered soon. Clearly, the Tigers can't put him on a major-league mound in a meaningful regular season game, but he can also block the team from sending him to the minors. A trade is out of the question.
Which leaves the option of an outright release.
Such a move would not be entirely unprecedented. The Arizona Diamondbacks swallowed $22 million in releasing pitcher Russ Ortiz in 2006, and as recently as last summer the Seattle Mariners ate $14 million in trash-heaping first baseman Richie Sexson.
But times were different then. In this economy, I wouldn't want to be the one who has to go to owner Mike Ilitch to explain why he should pay Willis $22 million to NOT pitch for the Tigers for the next two years.
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