Whatever Became of Dontrelle Willis?



I was perusing the MLB section of ESPN.com today when I came across a transaction that made me a bit nostalgic for recent days gone by.

San Francisco Giants Sign LHP Willis to Minor League Deal”, it read.

The Willis in question is of course former Detroit Tiger Dontrelle Willis, a man who was at one point one of the game’s brightest young stars. In fact, once upon a time, Cubs fans feared he would etch his name alongside Lou Brock as the “other” one that got away.

Willis was the centerpiece of a deal with Florida prior to the 2002 season that netted the Cubs closer Antonio Alfonseca and SP Matt Clement. Alfonseca turned out to be yet another in a string of Cub closer busts and while Clement proved to be a solid force in the rotation for a couple years, he couldn’t match the buzz created by Willis the following season.

By Matt Lindner

The left-hander with a tornado style windup electrified crowds in Miami, breathing life into a franchise that so desperately needed it in the years following the disastrous dismantling of the 1997 World Series Champions. Willis made his debut on May 9, 2003 and never looked back, earning Rookie of the Year honors and helping pitch the Marlins to a surprise six-game upset of the Yankees in that season’s World Series.

His talents would carry him through three more solid seasons playing in the Marlins’ pinstripes, culminating in a career high 22 wins and his second All-Star selection in 2005 before he very suddenly and inexplicably turned in to his own worst enemy.

Cracks in the armor began to show during the 2006 season, when his walk total jumped from 55 to 83 and perhaps more notably, he hit 11 more batters than he had the previous season. Things wouldn’t get any better the following year, when he lost a career-high 15 games and gave up 118 ER in only 205.1 innings pitched before being traded along with Miguel Cabrera to the Tigers the following season.

So what happened along the way? The short answer is he fell victim to the same thing that happened to Steve Blass, Mark Wohlers, and so many others before him. He simply lost his ability to find the plate.

In Detroit, Willis turned from Superman into Clark Kent, going from one of the game’s rising stars to the target of boo-birds far faster than anyone could have imagined. Doctors later diagnosed him with Social Anxiety Disorder. The Tigers for their part seemingly tried everything in their power to help him out. They sent him down to the minors to give him time to find his control, in an environment far less demanding than the Major Leagues. They placed him on the disabled list twice, helping him get counseling to deal with his anxiety issues.

Now, the man who was once the future of the game is on his third team this season. Just last month, Detroit traded him to Arizona after he walked 29 batters in 43.1 innings to start the season.

But while some thought a change of scenery could be the just what the doctor ordered, things weren’t meant to be for Willis in the desert. A month after arriving in Phoenix, he was gone. He posted a 6.85 ERA with 27 walks in 22.1 innings.

Willis is by all accounts a great guy who just happened to suffer the same terrible misfortune that befalls a select unlucky few over the course of history. On his way out the door, Arizona manager Kirk Gibson praised his work ethic and clubhouse presence, but with young players to develop, the Diamondbacks couldn’t afford to continue to deal with his struggles.

So what’s next? Well from the looks of things, Willis couldn’t have picked a better organization with which to make another comeback attempt. In fact, the Giants already have one former left-handed phenom turned high-priced bust turned reclamation project in their rotation.

For much of his Giants’ career, Barry Zito has been thought of as one of the biggest busts in all of free agent history, seemingly lugging the entire weight of his $120+ million contract along with him to the hill every time he pitched. This season however, he’s turned things around, going 7-4, 3.76 over the course of the first half of the season and becoming a key member of a San Francisco rotation that has the team just 3.5 games out of first in the NL West.

And quite frankly, the Giants have absolutely nothing to lose by bringing Willis on board. He’s just 28 years old and can still hit the low-90s on the radar gun, even if he seemingly can’t find the plate with a GPS of late. He’s not occupying a spot on their big league roster and the Tigers are on the hook for much of Willis’s $12 million salary, so financially he’s not costing the club anything either..

If he reverts to his early-career form, he’ll become either a force at the back of the rotation of an invaluable left-handed specialist and becomes arguably one of the most heartwarming reclamation stories in the history of baseball. If things don’t work out, we’ll always remember Dontrelle the player for what he was – a flash in the pan that made Marlins’ games fun to watch in the mid-2000s, a young hurler who lost his way for reasons beyond his control far too soon.

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