MLB Free Agents 2012: Philadelphia Philles Sign Veteran Pitcher Dontrelle Willis

Matt GoldbergCorrespondent IDecember 14, 2011

HOUSTON - AUGUST 03:  Pitcher Dontrelle Willis #50 of the Cincinnati Reds walks back to the dugout after retiring the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on August 3, 2011 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

Those of a certain vintage or with access to television reruns may remember the catchphrase, "What'chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?"

That line, spoken by Arnold (the late Gary Coleman) to his brother Willis (Todd Bridges), became the main reason to tune into a sitcom called Diff'rent Strokes, which ran from 1978 through 1986. Oh yeah, they liked their apostrophes on that show.

This brings us to the news that the Philadelphia Phillies came to terms Tuesday on a one-year deal with veteran left-handed pitcher Dontrelle Willis. Per a piece by Bob Gelb on, his base salary will be less than $1 million, assuming he passes his physical.

So, what are we talkin' 'bout?

At a time when the Phillies and veteran free-agent shortstop Jimmy Rollins have not been able to get together on a new contract, the club signed the former Rookie of the Year and NL Cy Young runner-up to what looks like very favorable terms.

So, is this a deal or a steal? At one time, it would have been grand larceny.

Willis exploded on the baseball landscape in 2003 as a tall, gangly, 21-year-old southpaw hurler for the Marlins. Placed in the starting rotation that May, he went 14-6 with a 3.30 ERA.

He made the All-Star team, won Rookie of the Year, and he was all the rage for his sheer energy and confounding, all-elbows-and-knees delivery. And yes, he pitched quite effectively, ripped the ball at the plate and was a terrific clubhouse presence.

After a bit of a sophomore slump, Willis rebounded brilliantly in 2005 (22-6, 2.63) and came close to wresting the Cy Young Award from the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter.

Through his first three seasons, the D-Train was a cumulative 46-27 with an earned run average around 3.30 and a respectable, if not stellar, WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) that averaged around 1.28.


The last six years have seen his once-promising career be derailed, if not wrecked. Willis' won-loss record has been a miserable 26-42, and his inside numbers have shown that he has not out-pitched that mark. His ERA has been high, and his control has been, well, abominable.

So, what role do the Phillies envision for Dontrelle, who won't turn 30 until next January? He is expected to pitch out of the bullpen, mostly as a lefty-to-lefty specialist.

On paper, given the fact that 202 of Willis' 205 MLB appearances have been as a starter, the move looks a little suspect. Not as illogical as, say, turning a longtime offensive line coach into a defensive coordinator (ahem, sorry Andy Reid), but a little risky just the same.

But, how big of a risk is it? In this day and age, this contract is pocket change, and Willis has always been regarded as one of baseball's good guys. Plus, as illustrated, he was a terrific pitcher at one time.

If Ryan Madson departs as expected, and Antonio Bastardo settles into the eighth-inning role, Willis could be quite effective in the type of duty that J.C. Romero once excelled in for the club, especially in that championship year of 2008.

Willis has some numbers that can be cause for optimism, if not wild celebration.

Bob Gelb cited these stats in his aforementioned piece on

His career numbers against lefties are outstanding, holding them to a career .200 average and .562 OPS against. In 2011, those numbers were even better, as lefties hit .127 with a .369 OPS against. Control is what always held Willis back, but in the small sample size of 60 plate appearances against lefties in 2011, he struck out 20 with only two walks.


Is this a questionable deal or a steal? That remains to be seen, but the risk-reward appears to be in the Phillies' favor.

And now, the hot stove league will soon reveal whether Willis' old Bay Area buddy, Jimmy Rollins, will stay in Philly and be his teammate.

It is certainly somethin' to talk 'bout.


As always, thank you for reading. Please check out my site, and new fan page for more info.