In a somewhat surprising move, the Cincinnati Reds have announced that Dontrelle Willis will be their starting pitcher for Sunday’s game against Milwaukee (as reported by Jerry Crasnick). The Reds have been dealing with pitching depth issues which have only been exacerbated by Wednesday night’s 13 inning game as well as the demotion of Edinson Volquez.
It’s only been a little more than one calendar year since we’ve seen Dontrelle Willis pitch in the Major Leagues — he pitched an inning in relief for the Diamondbacks on July 3rd, 2010 — but it feels like much longer. Willis hasn’t looked like a productive Major League pitcher since 2007, his last year with the Marlins, and even at that point we could sense the beginning of the end. After four straight seasons of 2.9 WAR or better, including a stellar 2005 season in which Willis threw 236 innings with a 2.63 ERA and a 2.99 FIP, Willis only managed a 5.17 ERA and a 5.13 FIP in 2007, and it was all downhill from there.
After his inclusion in the Miguel Cabera trade, Willis’s career collapsed. Willis has started 27 games in the major leagues since 2008 and has walked 119 batters against 82 strikeouts. That should be all one needs to know, and it should come as no surprised that his WAR over these 123.1 innings sits at -0.8. His minor league track record hasn’t offered much in the way of hope either. From 2008 to 2010, Willis has struck out 68 batters against 50 walks in 101 innings between the minor league systems of the Tigers and Giants.
Willis has at least shown a glimmer of talent in 2011, which, given his extensive history, is somewhat shockingly only his age 29 season. The lefty appears to have regained the reins a bit on his control, as Willis owns a comparatively microscopic 2.4 BB/9 in his first 75 innings as a Reds farmhand. With his control has come overall success, at least on the AAA level: his ERA of 2.63 and FIP of 3.12 are the first good signs in Willis’s recent history.
So although Willis will most certainly have to prove himself in the big leagues before anybody believes in his resurrection, there are at least signs of quality now. Perhaps just as striking as the fact that Willis has earned a trip back to the majors in 2011 is the fact that it has come with the Reds. Recall that Dave Cameron dubbed the Reds as potentially having the best rotation in the division, largely based on their depth. If anything, this move from Cincinnati proves that there is no such thing as too much pitching depth.
When Willis takes the mound on Sunday, there won’t be anybody expecting the Willis of six years ago to show up. Many won’t expect a Major League quality performance, and most will just see a punch line waiting to happen. But despite how old Willis’s career is, he’s still young, and if his minor league numbers mean anything at all, he just might have a chance at sticking around this time.
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