Brewers By the (Jersey) Numbers ’15 – #35 Dontrelle Willis

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FIVE WEEKS!

As another Monday rolls around those of us who have them are back to work in our cubicles doing menial tasks for wages that nobody feels are sufficient. But with the dawning of a new week comes the promise that we are one week closer to Opening Day. That’s what comforts us baseball fans and gets us through the long, cold (whether your temperatures are low or not), bitter, lonely winter. That’s why I countdown to Opening Day with this BBtJN series, with that counter over there to the right –>, and with messages on Twitter, Facebook, and the like.

When putting together the schedule for this year’s posts, I was intrigued by March 2 right away. Sure, it’s five weeks away from the home opener at Miller Park, but it also meant that I’d be writing about…

Dontrelle Willis.

 

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If you had told me back when I first launched “Brewers By the (Jersey) Numbers” that I’d ever be filing a thousand words on Dontrelle Wayne Willis, I’d have asked if you were Tolbert*. Quality movie references aside, with the talent, apparent ceiling, and eventual struggles that would push the man known as “D-Train” to independent ball by age 31, I never would have expected him to end up vying for a spot in the bullpen of the Milwaukee Brewers, of all places.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t opportunity in Milwaukee when he first signed his minor league deal and was extended an invitation to big league camp. After all but Will Smith of its multi-headed southpaw hydra left the 25-man roster, the Brewers wanted another lefty in the bullpen if they were able to land one. For a guy like Willis, that’s an oasis in the middle of the Mojave. Opportunity is golden goose and Dontrelle is playing the part of Jack.

Once upon a time (as we bleed the storybook reference) drafted by the Chicago Cubs (8th round, 2000) as the reigning “Mr. Baseball” in California, Willis was traded to the Florida Marlins just prior to the 2002 season as part of a four-for-two deal. He made his Major League debut on May 9, 2003 and helped the Marlins win the World Series to cap off a Rookie of the Year campaign. His best year came two seasons later in 2005 as Willis went 22-10 in 34 starts with a 2.63 ERA, 2.99 FIP in 236.1 innings pitched. That was good for career bests in WAR (7.2), ERA+ (152) and a second-place finish in the National League Cy Young Award balloting. 2006 was an acceptable year for Willis, but 2007 saw him struggle. Just 25 years old at the time, many evaluators targeted different things for Willis to try to get his career turned back around. On December 4, 2007, one of those techniques — the oft invoked “change of scenery” — found Willis as a virtual throw in to a blockbuster trade that sent he and Miguel Cabrera to the Detroit Tigers for six players.

Willis only pitched in eight games for the 2008 Tigers, making seven starts. He compiled a 9.38 ERA. In seven starts in 2009 for Detroit, Willis put together a 7.49 ERA. He was walking a ton of batsmen and didn’t have a pittance of his command nor control that carried him to such heights on South Beach. Willis would be traded (with cash) to the Arizona Diamondbacks in June of 2010. This truly began his whirlwind of employment.

The D’backs got six games (five starts) and a 6.85 ERA out of Willis and released him just over a month after acquiring him. He would sign with the San Francisco Giants roughly a week later, pitch out the year in the minors, and became a free agent at season’s end. He spent 2011 as a Cincinnati Red and would make 13 starts for them. In 75.2 big league innings, he compiled a 5.00 ERA but for the first time in a long time seemed to have his walks somewhat reined in (although a 4.4 BB/9 is still far too high).

The next season, Willis signed with and was released by the Philadelphia Phillies during the same off-season. He agreed to a minor league contract with the Baltimore Orioles four days later though would end up “voluntarily retiring” that July. The O’s released him officially in October. In January 2013, Willis caught on the Cubs but was again released before the season began. He wouldn’t pitch again in affiliated ball until August 2013 when he was signed by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He became a free agent that November, signed back with the Giants two months later but was released two weeks into the season after uncorking three wild pitches and a walk in two-thirds of an inning over two games. He pitched in independent ball (which he had done during the summer of 2013 as well) but even there his numbers were rough.

The Brewers, with a track record of giving veteran guys a chance and earning dividends, connected with the well-travelled Willis and came to an accord of their own on January 21, 2015. The move was widely panned with cries of consternation over giving a guy a contract who hadn’t appeared in the big leagues since 2011 and hadn’t pitched well since 2006. I’ll personally never understand those complaints over a no-risk, complete flier of a contract like the Brewers have give out over the years to useful guys like Gabe Kapler and complete busts like Kelvim Escobar. The money is always right. And at least with Willis, there was a fit in that the team desired another left-handed pitcher.

However…

For Willis, 2015 is looking like a case of delayed chance. The Brewers signed veteran southpaw relief pitcher Neal Cotts to a Major League contract and then re-signed Francisco Rodriguez to close games, revealing one of the seemingly open bullpen jobs as the mirage it truly was. Willis might stick in the organization and could very well carve out a nice niche for himself with the new Class-AAA affiliate at Colorado Springs while waiting for another opportunity. If he struggles to a degree where the Brewers believe his employ to be untenable, they won’t have reservations cutting him loose. A player in Willis’ situation understands that side of this game, but the lure of another good summer in the sun will likely keep the D-Train chugging (or perhaps lurching) along the tracks until the wheels actually fall off completely.

The cold-hearted business side shouldn’t cause you to trivialize what Willis has in front of him as Cactus League games finally get underway this week in Arizona. He’s been given another chance, another opportunity to seize the day. Often, that’s all you can ask for. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

Catch up on the countdown!

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