Philadelphia Phillies: Making Sense of the Curious Dontrelle Willis Signing

Mike AngelinaContributor IIIDecember 22, 2011

The Willis signing has arguably been the most intriguing of the Phills' moves
The Willis signing has arguably been the most intriguing of the Phills' movesJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It’s been over a week now since the Dontrelle Willis signing was announced, and it’s still rather curious. Since then, the Philadelphia Phillies have brought back a franchise icon, and this is the move that is still one that still has some buzz and intrigue to it.

The buzz and intrigue is in large part due to the curiosity associated with the move. Every angle you look at the signing, you identify a new wrinkle that makes it even more of a curious move.

To start, why did they need to guarantee him a major league contract?

Willis’ last two deals had been minor league contracts, one with San Francisco in the middle of the 2010 season, and one with Cincinnati last offseason for the 2011 season. He went 1-6 for Cincinnati last season as a starting pitcher, making 13 starts, with an ERA of 5.00. Why did he need to be signed to a guaranteed major league contract? This represents a “promotion” in a sense.

Willis could be a left-handed option out of Charlie Manuel's bullpen
Willis could be a left-handed option out of Charlie Manuel's bullpenJoe Robbins/Getty Images

If he is getting a “promotion,” or a salary increase, is he having a more demanding role?

The early indication is that Willis will be a left-handed reliever.

“Dontrelle, I believe, is at a point in his career where he is ready to make the transition to being an effective reliever,” General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said.

Willis has never been in that role, so why would you guarantee a contract to someone for a role you are only predicting they can thrive in based on split stats. You don’t know how they can handle it.

LOOGYs, as they’re called, typically don’t pitch much more than 50 innings, and those are typically the primary left-handers in teams’ bullpens. Antonio Bastardo will be the premier left-handed option, and will be the one used late in games. 

Rollins and Willis attended the same high school
Rollins and Willis attended the same high schoolKevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The last true LOOGY and second left-handed option out of the Phillies bullpen was Scott Eyre in 2009. Eyre pitched 30 innings that year, and that was on a team whose rotation does not pitch deep into games as frequently as this rotation does.

So does the role warrant the increased salary?

Willis threw 75.2 innings last year in his 13 starts from the rotation. That’s about as many innings as you could expect from one of the better relief pitchers in the game, something Willis is not. In fact, it's actually more than each league’s Rolaids relief pitcher, Jose Valverde from the American League and John Axford from the National League.

It’s safe to say that if Willis truly is signed to be a second LOOGY this season, he won’t pitch half the amount of innings he did last year, which raises doubts as to whether he will actually be a LOOGY this season.

That being the case, what are the Phillies paying for with the additional salary?

The Jimmy Rollins connection has been made, but it's hard to believe the Phillies brought in Willis to court his friend and former schoolmate in high school. You would have to think that the Phillies were going to sign Rollins anyway. If anything, Willis benefits from Rollins more than Rollins would ever benefit from Willis.

Willis hit .387 for the Reds last season
Willis hit .387 for the Reds last seasonJack Dempsey/Getty Images

The smooth shortstop could take a step forward and calm Willis, who suffers from an anxiety disorder when innings start to slip away from him. What benefit could Rollins possibly have with Willis on the team, other than a friend to hand out with after the game? 

With that ruled out, we'll keep looking, and look at Willis' contract. An incentive that was included in it adds an interesting twist and suggestion to what his role could be:

If Willis reaches 30 plate appearances during the season, he will receive an additional $25,000.

That is an unusual clause to be included in a reliever's contract. J.C. Romero had a clause in his contract that he signed last year that would allow him to receive a bonus—if he won a Silver Slugger. But Willis’ clause is interesting because it is for a counting stat that is achieved just by literally being in games, and not so much one for an achievement that is as unlikely as a situational left-hander whose last at-bat was in the 2008 World Series (which wouldn’t even count for consideration) getting national attention as the best hitter at his position in the league.

Park struggled as a starter, but thrived in a relief role in 2009
Park struggled as a starter, but thrived in a relief role in 2009Chris McGrath/Getty Images

What could make them and Willis agree to this clause? 30 plate appearances really is not that high for a pitcher. Willis made 34 trips to the plate in a partial season last year.

One way he could accumulate plate appearances is by pitching for more than one inning and staying in the game when the lineup runs through him. He hit .387 last year, so it is reasonable that they could do that. Even so, that would be troubling because it suggests the Phillies are trailing early and need to heavily rely on their bullpen for that game, as they would seemingly be needing to save Bastardo.

Do you really think the organization saw Halladay, Lee and Hamels blowing early leads often, and enough to make them want to sign Dontrelle Willis and ensure him coming here with that clause?

That can’t be the reason why. 

Another obvious way to accumulate plate appearances is if Willis is called on to pinch-hit. How many times do you see a relief pitcher pinch hit? It’s not like he can pinch-hit and then stay in the game to pitch—he needs to warm up; he needs some extra time to do so being a former starter.

The Willis signing might forcast a different role for Vance Worley
The Willis signing might forcast a different role for Vance WorleyHunter Martin/Getty Images

Willis likely realizes this, and wouldn’t settle on 30 as the magic number to kick the clause into place.

That leaves only one way: Willis being a starting pitcher. This is obviously the most likely way to get steady plate appearances so could Willis possibly being a starting pitcher be in the back of their minds?

Thirty plate appearances as a starting pitcher is not as much as it seems, it could be achieved in maybe 12 starts, or two months in the rotation. Maybe even getting seven to eight starts could get him in position to flirt with reaching 30 through the other previously discussed methods.

Could the Phillies be planning to audition Willis for a starting spot in Spring Training?

They have a history of doing this, and sometimes even letting them take a spot should they put up a spring performance that warrants one.

Pitching coach Rich Dubee gave Jose Contreras a look for a starting gig before 2010. You’ll remember the ill-advised promise Amaro made to Chan Ho Park before the 2009 season to lure him to Philadelphia. Park was promised that he would have every chance to get a spot in the rotation, should he earn one.

Ruben Amaro Jr. might be going for something else with this move
Ruben Amaro Jr. might be going for something else with this moveChris Trotman/Getty Images

Park had no business starting but competed with J.A. Happ, among others, for the final spot. Going into the offseason, it had appeared that Happ had the spot was Happ’s to lose. You could draw a parallel to that year’s situation to this upcoming year’s with Vance Worley. The only difference is Worley will have much more experience going into the upcoming year than Happ did in 2009.

But if the Phillies do make it a competition, things could get dicey. spring training games and performances are often hard to gauge because of the lack of steady, major league lineups pitchers will have to face. A pitcher could have a solid spring due to facing several poor teams who the Phillies caught while they were in split-squad action.

It creates skewed numbers, and if a pitcher has solid numbers, it is hard to justify any other determinant for that rotation spot.  

The 30 plate appearances clause would make more sense and have more significance, because it could be used as a method of increasing Willis’ salary for good play. If he’s making enough starts to get those PAs, meaning they keep running him through the rotation, chances are he’s being adequate enough.

Given his recent pitching history, that’s unlikely. So if there is more to this move and they really are looking at Willis in the rotation, this could become ugly.

Remember, the thought was the Reds would audition him exclusively as a third or even fourth left-handed option out of the bullpen when they signed him last season. He ended up making 13 starts and appearing in the batter’s box 34 times.

It’s an intriguing and curious move any angle you look at it. It’s also very worrisome.