Welcome Back Dontrelle Willis: D-Train Comeback with the Reds
Friday July 15, 2011
MLB reports: The D-Train is back baby. Kind of. It’s too early to tell. Dontrelle Willis burst onto the scene and looked to be a star in the making once upon a time. After four solid campaigns in Florida, 2007 was seen as an off-year for the ace of the Marlins. Drafted originally by the Cubs in the 8th round in the 2000 draft, Willis was shifted in a package of players including Julian Tavarez for Matt Clement and Antonio Alfonseca. Willis became an instant star in Florida and throughout the MLB community. He had his own television commercials promoting the sport and was considered one of baseball’s greatest ambassadors. In his 2003 NL ROY campaign, Willis made the All-Star team and won a World Series. Not a bad way to start a career. From there, Willis made his second and last appearance at an All-Star game in 2005 and finished second in the NL CY Young voting for top pitcher. With such a solid start to his career, few observers blinked when Willis was relatively ineffective in 2007. However, the misery was the sign of things to come. The road became bumpy and full of twists and turns that few expected. From the majors to the minors, back and forth, until few expected to see him back. Until this past Sunday, July 10th, when Dontrelle Willis returned to the major leagues, this time in a Reds uniform.
Although the blip in 2007 may not have scared off most observers, it was enough to put the Marlins in a tailspin. On December 5, 2007, the Marlins shipped off their franchise hitter and pitcher in Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to the Detroit Tigers, in exchange for prospects Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller and four others. As legend has it, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski approached the Marlins and gave a list of available prospects. The Marlins made their selections and the trade took no time to put together. Shortly after, Willis signed a 3-year, $29 million contract and Cabrera signed his monster contract to make him one of the top paid players in the game. The move of Cabrera was seen at the time as partially motivated by the clearing of Willis’ salary off the Marlins’ books. Despite off-field incidents involving alcohol related arrests and domestic abuse, Cabrera has been a perennial MVP candidate since joining the Tigers. Miller and Maybin, the centerpieces of the deal for the Marlins, have not played to expectations and have since moved on to the Red Sox and Padres respectively. Then there was Willis. While viewed at the time as giving the Tigers a top-of-the-rotation starter, Willis proved to be anything but. As the story goes, when Willis came to Detroit, he did not bring his fastball or his control and was run out-of-town in 2010 as a result.
Willis suffered for two and a bit seasons in Detroit, receiving his walking papers officially on May 30, 2010. During his stay in Detroit, Willis played for three different minor league teams in two years, making it all the way down to A-ball at different points. While a demotion to A-ball may have benefitted Roy Halladay in his younger years, the same could not be said for Willis. The jumping started, from the Diamondbacks to the minor league levels pitching for the San Francisco Giants organization. Then Willis signed with the Reds this past off-season a minor league deal with an invite to spring training. Despite playing well in spring training, Willis was still sent to pitch in AAA for Louisville to start the 2011 season.
Here are the career numbers of Dontrelle Willis as they stand today:
|162 Game Avg.||13||11||4.11||34||34||205||209||83||150|
|FLA (5 yrs)||68||54||3.78||162||162||1022.2||1046||344||757|
|DET (3 yrs)||2||8||6.86||24||22||101.0||103||92||68|
|ARI (1 yr)||1||1||6.85||6||5||22.1||24||27||14|
|CIN (1 yr)||0||0||3.00||1||1||6.0||4||4||4|
|NL (7 yrs)||69||55||3.84||169||168||1051.0||1074||375||775|
|AL (3 yrs)||2||8||6.86||24||22||101.0||103||92||68|
Since leaving Florida, Willis at best has been inconsistent to unusable. A starting pitchers that cannot consistently throw strikes and get hitters out will not last in the majors. Dontrelle Willis proved this in 2007, when his shrinking talent led him to a ticket out of Florida as he continued to bounce around, until last week when Willis pitched for the Reds. Quite a performance for a pitcher not expected to ever pitch again in the minors. Willis proved last Sunday he was back, if only for one shining moment.
On July 10, 2011, Dontrelle Willis made his first MLB start in over a year against the Milwaukee Brewers. Willis pitched 6 innings, giving up 2 hits, 4 earned runs and a 4/4 BB/K. Willis gets his next kick at the can this coming Monday, July 18th vs. the Pirates and James McDonald. Should be a powerhouse game, keep an eye on it if you can. This is no surprise, given how well Willis pitched for the Bats this year. In 13 starts, Willis had a 5-2 record, 2.63 ERA, 67 SO in 75.1 IP and only 20 walks, good for a 1.2o8 WHIP. Considering that Willis struggled at both the major league and minor league levels from 2008-2010, his strong start in AAA was seen as a possible sign of a comeback. Now after having his first MLB start under the belt, Willis can go out and simply pitch his game.
Willis was seen as battling an anxiety disorder during his time in Detroit and many experts were ready to write him off. Believe it or not, Dontrelle Willis still isn’t even 30 years-old yet, with his birthday coming up on January 12 2012. He is still young and has the potential inside of him. Without any major physical injuries or setbacks, Willis still has a good arm and has many innings in him to pitch. This year, watching Willis in spring training, he looked to have his head back on straight. He was playing the game the right way. Strong pitching and timely hitting to boot. But despite his spring success, Reds management decided to send Willis to AAA until his recall last week. It looks like Willis has undergone a transformation as far as simplifying his delivery and avoiding his non-traditional leg kick. From the Reds point of view, they may have landed the steal of the year with Willis in their rotation.
This story till boil down to the confidence and mental health of Dontrelle Willis. As long as the man can think positive thoughts and do his thing on the mound, good things will happen. As long as Willis stays healthy, he will succeed provided he keeps his head on straight. With more and more MLB players admitting to depression and anxiety disorders, it is clear that today’s game is as much mental as it is physical. One great thing about sports, especially baseball, is that fans love an underdog that makes a comeback. For a guy with a ROY, World Series ring and two All-Star appearances, you don’t see many comebacks bigger than that of Dontrelle Willis. With one start under his belt and another one coming back next Monday, Willis is making baby steps. Given his age and track record, the potential is there. Here is hoping that Willis can fulfill it.
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