10 May 2012
The story of Dontrelle Willis’ fall from stardom is one of the strangest and saddest you’ll see in the game. By the age of 23, Dontrelle had racked up two All-Star appearances, a Rookie of the Year award, and was named the runner-up for a Cy Young award. He would have one more successful season before completely and utterly imploding.
Of course we all know how Willis came to be a Tiger: in the December 2007 blockbuster deal that also netted Miguel Cabrera in exchange for top prospects Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller along with Mike Rabelo, Burke Badenhop, Eulogio De La Cruz and Dallas Trahern. It now sounds strange in hindsight, seeing as Miguel Cabrera has matured into perhaps one of the top-three hitters in the game while Willis has faded into oblivion, but I honestly can’t tell you which player I was more excited about at the time.
But although Willis occasionally (very, very occasionally) showed flashes of his former self while in a Detroit Tiger uniform, he was designated for assignment in 2010 after making only 22 starts in two and a half years. He walked 24 more hitters than he struck out as a Tiger, and spent a considerable amount of time on the disabled list with an anxiety disorder.
That was less than two years ago, but he’s already spent time with five organizations in the mean time. The Arizona Diamondbacks claimed him from the Tigers but then also designated him for assignment after he made seven appearances. The San Francisco Giants acquired him to pitch some innings in the minor leagues, but they didn’t bring him back for the 2011 season. The Cincinnati Reds signed him to a minor-league deal last season, and he actually pitched well in AAA which prompted a major-league call up, but his control issues returned (though not quite as bad as before) and he finished the year with a bad-luck-aided ERA of 5.00 (his FIP and xFIP of 4.10 and 4.08 say he wasn’t that bad).
Willis, who’s now 30 years old, signed a non-guaranteed contract with the Philadelphia Phillies this offseason, but he was released during spring training while appearing to be ineffective in camp. The Baltimore Orioles pounced on him less than a week later, taking him on with another minor-league deal.
But things got weird between the Orioles and Willis when he wanted to remain a starter while they wanted to convert him to relief. Willis apparently left his minor league club with permission after the disagreement, but the Orioles placed him on the restricted list claiming no such permission was granted. Willis filed a grievance against the Orioles on April 25 because his status on the restricted list would prevent him from latching on with another organization.
Apparently the two sides have mended the fences, however, because Willis agreed yesterday that he would drop the grievance, and the Orioles agreed that he could continue to resume his career as a starting pitcher.
I’m not sure sticking it out as a starting pitcher is best for Willis’ chances at rejoining a major league club, he could probably find better success as a situational player, but you would really hate to see a player leave the game for good over something like this. And with Willis’ age and career history, you have to wonder if this stop is his last.
Matt Snyder is the editor of The Tigers Den. He can be reached on Twitter @snyder_matthew.