Dontrelle Willis and the Detroit Tigers Just Couldn't Make It Work
You can't say they didn't try.
Dontrelle Willis and the Tigers did everything they could to make it work. They put him on the DL and gave him a mental vacation.
They changed his mechanics, and then changed them back.
They gave him every opportunity to earn a job this spring, and when it appeared he was up to the task of pitching in the majors, they essentially gave away Nate Robertson.
But when Willis' wildness returned this month, just as Max Scherzer pitched his way back to the majors, that was the final straw. For the Tigers to contend in 2010, they simply couldn't keep running Dontrelle out there every fifth day.
The short-term implications for the Tigers are pretty severe. It means Scherzer and Armando Galarraga are being counted on to give the Tigers quality innings at the back end of the rotation. It also means that if one of them is not up to the task, the Tigers will be in the market for starting pitching later this summer.
Willis ends his tenure in Detroit with a 2-6 record and 6.86 ERA in 101 IP, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 0.74.
His disastrous career in a Tigers uniform over, some may now lament that the Tigers ever traded for him; I won't. In fact, Willis joined the Tigers in a trade that seems likely to go down as one of the best in franchise history.
That's because Willis was merely a throw-in to help facilitate the Tigers' acquisition of Miguel Cabrera, the young slugger seemingly destined for Cooperstown who puts his greatness on display for Tigers fans just about every night.
Trading for Willis wasn't a mistake. The same can't be said for signing him to a three-year, $29 million extension before he ever threw a pitch in a Tigers uniform.
If his 2007 season had been anything like the 2005 campaign that saw him win 22 games with a 2.63 ERA, the extension would've been justifiable. However, Willis was coming off a terrible year that saw him post a 5.17 ERA and his WHIP climb for the third consecutive season.
Inexplicably, Dave Dombrowski and the Tigers simply took a leap of faith with Willis, investing heavily in him before it was clear if he was worth investing in or not. A more prudent approach would've been to allow Willis to prove he was headed in the right direction, and then signed him if it appeared so, even if it meant potentially losing him on the open market.
It's a sad day for both Willis and the Tigers, but hardly as sad as June 9, 2008, when he walked five and gave up eight ER against the Indians before a national audience, or his final start of 2009, when he walked eight Pirates and didn't make it out of the fourth inning.
In short, it had been clear for some time this wasn't going to have a happy ending. Short of a Cy Young award or maybe winning the seventh game of the World Series, nothing Willis did this season was going to change his legacy in Detroit.
As forgettable as his time in Detroit was, it's hard for me to harbor too much resentment towards Dontrelle. He came across as a humble, down-to-earth guy who seemed genuinely appreciative of the Tigers' support and regretted that he had not lived up to expectations.
For the D-Train, this is certainly a bump in the road, but I find it hard to believe his baseball career is even close to being over. In fact, I think he's an ideal reclamation project candidate.
For all the talk of an alleged anxiety disorder, I personally saw Willis' issues as being more mechanical than anything. Earlier this year on MLB Network's MLB Tonight, Tom Verducci broke down video of Willis that saw him throw from three different release points over the course of a few innings. You don't have to be a pitching virtuoso to know there's something wrong there.
Additionally, he seemed to struggle switching from the windup to the set, which hardly did him any good either.
There is clearly work to be done, but nothing I think is beyond a pitching coach like Dave Duncan to figure out (coincidentally, the Cardinals suddenly find themselves short on pitching). Whether it's St. Louis or one of the other 28 teams, Willis will catch on somewhere.
In the meantime, you can't help but think of what could've been. If he'd been anything close to the pitcher who won the hearts of fans all over South Florida, Dontrelle could've been the King of Motown.
No matter how futile it seemed, I wanted to keep believing in this guy. So did the entire Tigers organization.
It seemed like such a perfect match at first; that charismatic young pitcher with the million dollar smile coming on board for 2008 to help lead the Tigers to their first World Series win in a quarter century.
That season didn't work out as expected; neither did Willis' time in Detroit.
Clearly, some things just aren't meant to be.
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