It may be hard to believe, but it’s been more than ten years since Dontrelle Willis burst on to the major league scene and became a national sensation. With his high leg kick, unorthodox delivery, and his infectious smile and tireless enthusiasm, Willis became one of the most popular players in the major leagues when he came on the scene as a rookie in 2003. Now, ten seasons and several organizations later, the tall lefty is trying to claw his way back to the big league mound, and the Giants might be offering him the chance.
It was reported this morning (on Twitter, no less) that the Giants were working on a minor league deal with the player known as D-Train, one that would likely mean a Spring Training invite and a long shot opportunity to make the team’s bullpen as a long man or LOOGY (Left-Handed One Out Guy). Willis last appeared in the majors in 2011 with Cincinnati, starting thirteen games but managing to win only one of them while losing six and posting a 5.00 ERA. Willis split 2013 between AAA and the Independent League. He performed admirably for the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League, but struggled in four starts with the Salt Lake Bees (the AAA affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels) and never made it back to a big league team.
Willis, of course, is a local boy, born in Oakland and having graduated from Encinal High School in Alameda. He grew up rooting for the A’s (he has been quoted as idolizing A’s great Dave Stewart), and has recently expressed desire to try to make it back to the majors with one of the Bay Area teams. Willis pitched briefly in the Giants’ minor league chain before, in 2010, when he made three appearances in the Rookie League and then five more for the AAA Fresno Grizzlies.
Willis gained much fanfare in 2003 with the Florida Marlins, when he won the National League Rookie of the Year and helped that team win the World Series. Willis also finished second in the NL Cy Young voting in 2005, when he won 22 games with a 2.63 ERA. In his first four seasons in the big leagues, Willis averaged fourteen wins and 204 innings per season, to go along with a 3.44 ERA (a terrific 121 ERA+). He also made his mark at the plate, establishing himself as perhaps the NL’s premier hitting pitcher. In five seasons with the Marlins, Willis hit eight home runs, five triples, ten doubles, and hit .234, excellent for a pitcher.
Willis’s career hit a wall, however, in 2007. After a miserable year in which he posted a 5.17 ERA (helped in no small part by a truly awful defense behind him), Willis was dealt to the Detroit Tigers in the same trade that netted them Miguel Cabrera. Immediately upon being handed a three-year, $29 million contract extension, Willis fell apart. In his first year with the Tigers, Willis inexplicably lost his ability to find home plate. In seven starts, he walked a gruesome 35 batters in 24 innings, and ended with a 9.38 ERA. The poor control plus a knee injury led to a lost season.
Unfortunately, it was only downhill from there, as Willis never regained his control and battled injury and ineffectiveness before the Tigers gave up and traded him to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010. He didn’t fare much better in the desert. In 175 major league innings from 2009 to 2011, Willis walked 121 batters and posted a 5.71 ERA.
The minor league offer by the Giants amounts to little more than a curio or a depth move. Willis may have some potential as a LOOGY reclamation project, but the most likely scenario here is that he battles his way on to Fresno’s minor league rotation and spends time there acting as rotation insurance for the big club. The results from Willis in recent years, even in the minors, have been totally underwhelming., but the Giants have had success turning washouts into useful parts in recent years (Ryan Vogelsong, Santiago Casilla, Yusmeiro Petit,), so I guess you never know.