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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.

By Dave Sheinin  |  March 20, 2009; 5:11 PM ET
 
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Comments

Their best chance at not eating the money would probably be to package him with Cabrera in a potential trade. But of course, unless you get one of a very small group of players back for Cabrera, you're making your club worse.

Best bet for them would be to find some kind of "injury," put him on the 60 day DL, and see how the team comes out of the gate and how strong attendance is in a city that's been devastated by the economy. If they look like a contender and people are coming to the games, you cut him loose at that point. If the team is spotty and the stands are bare, you put him and Cabrera out there and see if you can get the Red Sox or some other big market team to take them as a package.

Posted by: pondaz | March 20, 2009 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Interesting this off season that there was talk of a juliio lugo for dontrell trade around the time of the owners meetings. The tigers went for a defensive SS instead, and the Sox brought in the who's who of the lame but quality pitching FAs. At one point (before the Baldelli signing), I thought shipping Kearns and Dmitri to Boston, Lugo to Detroit, and Willis + player or cash relief to DC made a bit of sense as Ortiz / Drew / Lowell insurance. Now it looks like Willis would not beat out Balester.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | March 20, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

You always hear about the value of deception in a pitcher's delivery, and then they try to take it away from him. Not smart. Incidentally, giving him a lucrative contract after he had already regressed considerably from '05 form, not smart either.

Pitching and mechanics can often mimic golf and mechanics. There's a fine line between refining and retooling. And if you have too many ideas rattling around in your head, then nothing feels right and nothing works.

Posted by: dclifer | March 20, 2009 5:41 PM | Report abuse

I'm beginning to think that pitching for Marlins means your arm is ground to dust. You know he would get more innings because the Marlins don't have anything to lose, and then could generally slug behind him. That's the only way you can get enough decisions to get 22 wins. I don't know, but I thought that Olsen would have been a little quicker the other night. If he's hanging balls out over the plate, or even just off the plate at 87. And he was getting it up. It's still early, but what he was doing seemed a lot different from someone who gets people out while working in a certain zone, and then humps it up another 5-6 mph when they absolutely need an out. Because at least you know the guy's still got the armspeed even if he can't throw it all the time.

Posted by: Brue | March 20, 2009 5:54 PM | Report abuse

I'm a bit of a student of pitching, and I have to admit I haven't seen many like Willis. Looking at his mechanics, I never could understand how he was so effective early in his career, and I'm not really sure why he's so remarkably ineffective now.

He doesn't do much right on the mound, but he never did, so it's hard to see that as the problem. Despite his age, I've got to believe it's physical.

He's the sort of pitcher, I think, who has to throw above ninety to succeed. That's when his strange delivery is most deceptive. When the ball slows down a little, the hitters can time it, and his advantage disappears in an instant.

So if he's hovering in the high eighties, he's going to get hit. A lot.

THis is why you hate to be a baseball manager or GM. It's like being a supervisor in one of those enormous bureaucracies where you've got employees who stopped actually doing anything a couple years back, and you still can't fire them.

THat's what Leyland is looking at. Of course he's still hoping -- what else can he do?

Posted by: Samson151 | March 21, 2009 7:02 AM | Report abuse

Sounds a lot like Austin Kearns to me......

Posted by: JayBeee | March 21, 2009 7:27 AM | Report abuse

Nice enough of a kid it would easier if he were a jerk but Willis is a well mannered respectful young man i mean this is a very baffling situation and it could be that his arm is just gone.

Posted by: dargregmag | March 21, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse

if willis gets released, i'd love to see the nats take a flier on him. he's still young. willis was never a hard thrower. he just needs to get out of detroit.

Posted by: NatsFan2005 | March 22, 2009 12:42 AM | Report abuse

It is apparent that Willis' problem lies in his arm. Either that or he is out of shape overall. If his velocity is down, the Tigers would first look at his delivery to see if there is a mechanical problem that has diminished his velocity. But in Willis' case, his mechanics are so unusual, and since altering his delivery didn't work, they are in a catch-22 and have to hope that he can handle any mechanics issues on his own. If he is back to using his vintage, Marlins era delivery, and his velocity is still down, he has an arm issue. He was likely over-used back in Florida, likely during his 22 win season. He may never come back to where he once was. He would be best served to learn how to pitch and work in his command. You don't need to throw 90+ to be effective. Ask Jamey Moyer.

Posted by: PhilliesPhan | March 22, 2009 4:43 PM | Report abuse

And we complained about Bowden? Dombrowski spent something liek $80 Miilion Dollars to win maybe 3 more games than the Nats? Willis will likely accept the minors assignment, unless he feels like some other club has a guru that can turn him around (and he literally needs to be turned around -- he shows the ball to the hitter for something like 10 seconds in his wind-up. The hitter can call out the pitch he is throwing well before he releases it.) And, unlike Jamie Moyer, Willis is not so good at throwing strikes.

Posted by: dfh123 | March 23, 2009 5:05 PM | Report abuse

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