Free Dontrelle Willis… Literally

Matt Sosnick feels very strongly about the situation his client, Dontrelle Willis, currently finds himself in. Per Jerry Crasnick’s post on the Willis-Orioles drama at ESPN.com:

“I can’t imagine making this kind of deal over something so trivial. We’re talking about a minor league player that Baltimore has relatively no financial investment in whatsoever. It’s the dumbest thing ever and a waste of everybody’s time. Dan has had a thousand chances to ratchet this down a notch, and all he’s done is ratchet it up.” – Matt Sosnick

Sosnick is referring to the Orioles recent transaction placing Willis on the restricted list. The move prevents Willis from signing with another team, even though he supposedly left the organization with the blessing of team officials. Instead, what appears to have happened is that those same officials relayed their recommendations to GM Dan Duquette, who instead placed Willis on the list generally reserved for players who have left the organization, but in whom the team still has interest.

Which means that Willis left the team under the impression that everything was fine, only to find out on the news — according to Sosnick — that he was placed on the restricted list.

While both sides technically have a case here, Sosnick is correct in that this is all much ado about nothing. Dontrelle Willis, quite simply, isn’t worth any of this hullabaloo, and it’s hard to see why the Orioles haven’t just released him. Now that Willis has filed a grievance on the matter, this unnecessary situation is set to get even more out of hand.

The Orioles signed Willis after he was released by the Phillies this spring, but Willis grew unhappy with his role in the organization. He was obviously signed to compete for a bullpen spot as a lefty specialist, but Willis, who has dealt with anxiety issues in the past, was having trouble adapting. Even though he spent most of this spring with the Phillies in a similar role, Willis said his arm wasn’t responding well and implied he would feel more comfortable starting.

That’s all well and good except for the fact that Willis is no longer an effective major league starting pitcher. His only tangible value to a team is as a lefty specialist, and even then he is an unproven commodity. If the Orioles placed him on the restricted list because they were so enamored of his LOOGYing ability, then why did they sign him to a non-guaranteed deal and place him in the minors? He spent all of spring training with the Phillies, so he is still in game shape, and he wasn’t dealing with any injuries that required a rehab assignment.

If they were convinced that his numbers against lefties last season truly reflected his current true talent level, it would have behooved them to get him in the major league ‘pen as soon as possible. But that never happened, which suggests Duquette’s decision has more to do with making a point than actually improving the Orioles organization.

And that point would be, what, exactly?

That fringe major league talent has no right to dictate where they play or in what role? Maybe a case could be made that Willis acted immaturely and should have honored his agreement as a reliever, but three months from now nobody would even remember he was in the Orioles organization if he was just granted his outright release. He isn’t anywhere close to an impact player, and if it wasn’t for the value of name recognition, this would be akin to the Phillies and Pete Orr getting into a public spat.

The situation is easier to grasp from Willis’s side, as it’s entirely possible that he has offers overseas as a starting pitcher. It has already been rumored that a couple of teams in Asia are seeking his services, and if he doesn’t want to pitch in relief in the majors, he doesn’t want to pitch in relief in the majors. He isn’t going to be the difference between a team succeeding or failing, and he certainly wasn’t going to catapult the Orioles to respectability or help attract other free agents to Baltimore.

And the impact this has on future free agents is noteworthy as well. This offseason illustrated how few free agents and executives wanted to go to Baltimore, and Duquette’s actions in this situation offer absolutely no positive outcomes towards improving the perception of the organization around baseball.

Dontrelle is viewed as one of the good guys around baseball and Duquette’s actions will come off as villainous regardless of his justification.

The bottom line is that Willis says he was told it was okay to leave and seek opportunities elsewhere, while the organization claims he left without permission. Willis thought it was a mutual parting of ways, as he further explained in Crasnick’s piece:

“It’s one of those things where, if he had told me he was putting me on the restricted list, I wouldn’t have left. I didn’t grab my book bag and run out of the class. I’m almost dumbfounded. I’m not even upset. I don’t know if it’s personal because I don’t know Dan.” – Dontrelle Willis

Whether it’s personal or not, Willis has every right to be dumbfounded, because even if there was a miscommunication along the way, this situation should have been resolved quickly. There is absolutely no reason not to release him regardless of who said what, to whom, and when, and even less of a reason for the situation to escalate to the point of a grievance being filed.

This is an ugly and unnecessary situation that offers no positive outcome whatsoever to the Orioles and really makes one wonder what Duquette truly hopes to get out of it.




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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.


44 Responses to “Free Dontrelle Willis… Literally”

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  1. Colin P says:

    Willis was a starter last year for the Reds, and started in AAA before he came up

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  2. Nick says:

    Given what happened in Korea, you have to wonder what kind of operation Duquette is really running over there. No matter the talent, budget, or competitive constraints a team has, there’s no excuse for a front office to act anything less than professional at all times.

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    • harpago17 says:

      What makes you sure that Duquette is running anything? As far as I’m concerned, this is yet another of Peter Angelos greatest hits. Any time you get turned down by multiple people after offering them the job of major league general manager, things aren’t going great for your club.

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      • Nick says:

        Angelos might be a meddler, but I doubt he’s involved with the finer points of Korean scouting or whether to put burnout minor leaguers on the restricted list.

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  3. Slartibartfast says:

    Good luck, Dontrelle.

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  4. BDF says:

    Contrast the Orioles with how the Rangers would have handled this, a fringe player with psychiatric issues …

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  5. Baseball Bob says:

    Maybe my memory is faulty, but didn’t the Orioles used to be the epitome of a class organization? Welcome, Dan Duquette!

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Are we talking about the 60′s through mid 80s or what?

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      • jorgath says:

        No, the 90s, when Cal Ripken Jr. was so much of a face of the franchise that no one ever paid attention to any other Oriole (except Mussina).

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        “the Oriole way” is what you’re referring to I believe. Professionalism, quality pitching, fundamentals, grit, hustle, loyalty, respect.

        Now it’s nothing but crap contracts to vets and ridiculousness like this.

        Too bad. I was hoping to see a day when Dylan Bundy (13 no hit innings, 21 Ks, 1 walk so far in his professional career) is squaring off against Stephen Strasburg in the World Series.

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  6. mcbrown says:

    Anyone who finds this situation surprising simply hasn’t had enough exposure to the Dan Duquette experience. DD’s skill in acquiring talent is exceeded only by his ability to pointlessly antagonize players, fans and his own staff.

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  7. Casey says:

    I’m not sure there are enough facts out yet to draw a conclusion on who is in the wrong.

    But, if my understanding is correct, Dontrelle entered a contract for a relief role, he broke the agreement of the contract, and the Orioles are at fault for putting him on the restricted list?

    It’s worth mentioning that the Red Sox (a division rival) need bullpen help right now. Wouldn’t the O’s look foolish if they let him go and he caught on with the Sox and performed servicably?

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    • TK says:

      No, the only thing that will make the O’s look foolish this year is the 95ish losses they will accumulate. The Red Sox possibly getting the slightest of bits better doesn’t rate.

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    • BDF says:

      You don’t sign a contract to a position and role and contracts don’t work in the kind of rigid way you imply. Willis (apparently) had a good-faith reason to believe that he and the team agreed he should leave. At best there was miscommunication (at worst [and more likely] DD wanted to screw someone who wasn’t doing what he wanted) that could easily have been resolved without it escalating to a union grievance.

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      • Kyle H says:

        Why is it automatically assumed that it wasnt just a miscommunication? If the management dont understand why he is up and leaving why wouldn’t they put him on the reserved list? Has anyone from the O’s said they are okay with him leaving the organization?

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      • BDF says:

        Because when an organization is suffering miscommunication, the best way to handle it is through *good* communication, not by escalating in a way that makes solving the problem much more difficult.

        I obviously don’t know what went on in this case, and whatever happened it’s not like I think the Orioles are evil or anything for putting Willis on the restricted list (assuming that’s kosher with baseball and labor rules). But as an outsider it just looks incredibly foolish to me. That’s now how well run organizations in any business conduct themselves. Even if it’s all Willis and the Orioles did zero wrong, they’re much better off handling it in a way that avoids a grievance and the appearance of bad faith and immaturity. This isn’t a superstar; it’s Dontrelle Willis.

        But of course they’re free to do whatever they want.

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    • rea says:

      ” if my understanding is correct, Dontrelle entered a contract for a relief role, he broke the agreement of the contract, and the Orioles are at fault for putting him on the restricted list?”

      It wasn’t a breach of contrct if, as he claims, Willis left by mutual agreement.

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      • Casey says:

        I realize that’s what Dontrelle and his agent are saying. But I’d be more likely to believe that from an impartial source.

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    • Jonathan says:

      Pretty rotten article right there. The article’s headline makes it sound like there was some huge drama around it, but the story itself doesn’t remotely contradict Willis’ version of events. Given, it’s entirely possible that Willis is the one that’s full of it, but as noted by the article here, there’s really no good reason for the Orioles to place him on the restricted list if the results aren’t showing up. The more time goes on, the worse Duquette looks.

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    • Ronin says:

      I agree all the article really has is Duquette saying “He just left.” We already know Duquette’s stance on the subject. Judging by the title of the link “willis storms out” I was expecting to read how Dontrelle flipped the buffet table, threw the gatorade jug, and punched a locker in a fiery rampage. Instead it just says he left the team after talking to management.

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  8. Aaron (UK) says:

    How do I claim my free Dontrelle Willis please?

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  9. oilcanboy says:

    “If the Orioles placed him on the restricted list because they were so enamored of his LOOGYing ability, then why did they sign him to a non-guaranteed deal and place him in the minors?”

    This is sort of a silly sentence – they want him to develop as a LOOGY, and he didn’t warrant anything more than a non-guaranteed minor league deal.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      Yeah, I didn’t really understand that either. Isn’t it always preferable to sign someone to a non-guaranteed contract instead of a guaranteed contract? And isn’t it good to have pitchers in the minors for depth purposes? It seems like the Orioles are being criticized for not giving him more leverage than he deserved.

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    • Tito Landrum says:

      Right, that was silly and maybe a bit of a cheap shot. Also, Willis was not ready to start the season on time, contrary to what was written. Willis admitted as much himself when he first arrived in Sarasota.

      Ultimately, I guess they should just let him go. But, Duquette suspects that Willis has another deal lined up and instead Willis should honor the contract he signed with Baltimore. Duquette has also said he is not ready to give up on Willis becoming a lefty specialist and he is hoping Willis will reconsider. Perhaps he is just giving Dontrelle a bit more time to think things over.

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  10. Sean O'Neill says:

    You stay classy Dan Duquette.

    I remember him having issues with a bunch of guys when he was with the Sox…you’d have thought being out of a job for most of a decade would have mellowed him out, but apparently not.

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  11. noseeum says:

    Dontrelle should most definitely file a grievance. With his left arm!

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  12. vivalajeter says:

    Dontrelle signed on with the Orioles, and as far as I know there’s no opt-out clause. Why are the Orioles douchebags for not granting him his release? If he wants to go to Japan, that’s fine. But if he’s just gonna sign with another team, why should they let him? Just because he’s not a star anymore – and maybe not even an ML caliber player – it doesn’t mean they should just let him opt out of his contract simply because he doesn’t like his role with the team.

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    • Eric Seidman says:

      And if there was no agreement between he and team officials, I 100% agree with you. But the issue here is that he was supposedly told they would release him so he could pursue starting opportunities elsewhere, so he left… and then the team put him on the restricted list.

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      • Kyle H says:

        But why is the automatic assumption that the FO are the ones being untruthful and not Willis?

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      • jorgath says:

        Kyle – because they haven’t said otherwise. They haven’t said anything. They said that he talked to management, he left, and they put him on the list. They haven’t said why they put him on the list.

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      • Kyle H says:

        jorgath- that is to imply that they need to say anything in public. DD doesnt seem to give a flying fart what people outside the organization think of him. Everyone hates a guy who doesn’t play ball with the press, it seems. And not just in baseball, everywhere. To assume that willis’ side is the only side, just because the other side isn’t public is asinine.

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      • BDF says:

        It’s not asinine. Baseball is a public business. DD and the Orioles are under no moral or legal (so far as I know) obligation to release their thinking, but since they operate in a public business with no real reason not to explain themselves and *aren’t* releasing their thinking, it’s reasonable to believe, given the limited information (and DD’s history), that the Orioles have acted badly.

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  13. Jack says:

    Nobody knows who the team official is who told Willis he could leave, right? Sounds like somebody low in the organization told Willis he could go without running it by Duquette. It’s Duquette’s decision, ultimately. Nobody has permission to grant Willis his release besides him.

    That would mean this isn’t Duquette’s fault, it’s the fault of whoever told Willis he could leave. Still a miscommunication in the organization, but no reason for Duquette to turn around and say “whoops, I guess you can go, somebody who works for me said you could so I guess there’s no turning back.” He’s supposed to be in charge, so he should talk to/punish whoever wrongly told Willis he could leave and make his own decision on whether or not holding Willis to his contract is worthwhile.

    Clearly the decision was ‘yes,’ so the only logical steps are to a) place Willis on the restricted list until he decides to return to pitch for the AAA club or b) grant him his release on terms that are amendable to Duquette when Willis and his agent come talk to Duquette directly.

    It’s bad enough the Angelos and Showalter meddle in everything, so the Orioles need a GM who isn’t going to be afraid to assert his authority in areas of importance. And while Willis isn’t anything special, “player transactions” is certainly an area of importance.

    Alos, Willis has no ground to stand on here. He signed a minor league contract with full understanding that he would be a LOOGY and did not include an opt out clause. He can either formally request his release (which is not required to be granted) or he can retire. That’s it. Without a formal release, his only options are to pitch or to sit on the restricted list indefinitely. Stop whining to the media, return to the team you signed on to play for, and negotiate a formal release or shut up and pitch.

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    • Killua says:

      That’s a pretty cold way of viewing it. It’s true Willis has no ground to stand on, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for a GM to ignore their players wishes when it doesn’t benefit them in the slightest.

      I won’t be surprised if this has gotten around to other agents and players, and the O’s struggle to sign any FA, minor league or major, now. There’s a difference between a bad team and a bad organization, and the O’s are sitting in the middle of the latter.

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    • Scraps says:

      Actually, Willis’s agent said Tripp Norton, Baltimore’s director of baseball administration, gave permission. Not somebody low in the organization. He added, “I’ve known Tripp Norton for 15 years and had good, direct, honest dealings with him time after time. I’m disappointed for Tripp that he’s been placed in the middle of this.”

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  14. Anonymous says:

    As long as there was no signing bonus and they don’t have to pay the remainder of his contract, I don’t see the problem with it. He is easily replaceable organizational filler. That said he signed with the O’s knowing he was going to be pitching in a relief role, so I don’t know what his problem is, either. If he’s drawing interest from Korea or Japan or the Red Sox then the O’s should get something in compensation.

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  15. walt526 says:

    I agree with Eric’s assessment that Willis’ days as a useful major league pitcher are over. But the main reason why this course of action makes absolutely no sense for the Orioles is the effect that this drama will likely have on making it more difficult for them to sign former major league players to minor league contracts as NRI’s in the future.

    It’s obviously not a pipeline that provides teams with a lot of useful talent, but one of Duquette’s strengths is supposedly being able to identify castaways that still have something left. Would the next David Ortiz be inclined to play for a Duquette-led team after seeing Dontrelle Willis get screwed with?

    Duquette is probably within his rights to do what he’s doing. But there doesn’t seem to be any potential upside and there’s a pretty steep downside, IMHO.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      I don’t necessarily think this will stop people from signing with the Orioles. They’ll just get a better agent that puts an opt-out clause in the contract. If he didn’t want to pitch in relief for their minor league team, why did he sign a contract with them and not put an opt-out clause in it?

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  16. Nataholic says:

    Willis has a reasonable legal argument that he was released from his contract if he had a conversation with an executive that represented the team and he reasonably relied upon that conversation. Based on Willis’s reactions I find that story more credible and DD wasn’t in the loop on it. That being said, baseball teams often give middling former MLB player or long term minor leaguers their release to pursue other opportunities. Look at the Yankees and Jonathan Alabadejo (the pitcher the Yankees traded for Clippard), he was given his release to go pitch in Japan last year. So its not unheard of to release players when they want out. That being the case what is DD’s motivation? Did he really think Willis was going to pitch this year in B-more? If so, I can understand his hesitancy. But if Willis was just a ‘lightning in a bottle’ guy then DD is looking pretty dumb.

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  17. Lex Logan says:

    “Even though he spent most of the 2011 season as a LOOGY for the Reds…” Fangraphs shows 13 starts each in AAA and the majors for 2011, zero relief appearances. I can sympathize with anxiety issues; I took a job last year (of a type I’ve handled before) and was completely unable to perform. On a side note, the way Dontrelle hit for the Reds maybe he should’ve been given a shot at left field!

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  18. Mr Punch says:

    This case shows why veteran pitchers (especially) struggling to hang on often sign contracts with “outs” if they aren’t brought up to the majors by, say, May 1 – Millwood last year, Aaron Cook this year are examples.

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