Willis, with Philly, not ready for his last stop
CLEARWATER – A familiar figure sits at the far corner of the Philadelphia Phillies clubhouse, at the opposite end from such marquee starters as Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee – and the at opposite end of the world he once dominated as a big-time starter himself.
These days, Dontrelle Willis is just hoping to prove he's worthy of a spot in the Philly bullpen as a spot reliever – a far cry from his days as a flashy young Marlins lefthander who won the 2003 Rookie of the Year Award and racked up 22 wins with a 2.63 ERA two years later.
"I'm happy to be here – they've welcomed me with open arms," said the 30-year-old with the perpetually upbeat, energetic personality. "It's such a great organization with great history. And I've been working hard just to fit into the system."
His journey through baseball since leaving Florida as part of a blockbuster trade that sent him and slugger Miguel Cabrera to the Detroit Tigers has been a rocky one.
There were his two difficult seasons with Detroit, including re-assignment to Class A Lakeland to work on his control issues that had gradually undermined him in Florida. Between 2008 and part of 2010, the 6-4, 225-pounder with the quirky, high-kick delivery was a mere shadow of his former self at 2-8 with a 6.86 ERA, a tenure marked by time on the disabled list in 2009 with an anxiety disorder.
In a brief stint with Arizona that season, he finished 1-1 with a 6.85 – his rookie win over childhood hero Randy Johnson and the Diamondbacks a distant memory.
More frustration followed last year in Cincinnati, where Willis was initially re-assigned to the Triple-A Louisville Bats before a July call-up. He went 1-6 with an ERA of 5.00, but showed a glimpse of his former self in an August start against Colorado, striking out 10 batters in eight innings and yielding only three runs – his longest stint since his last start with the Marlins in 2007.
But even though he has pitched in 43 games over the past four seasons, the Phillies saw in Willis an experienced pitcher who could specialize in getting out lefthanded hitters – something he succeeded at with the Reds in spite of his poor overall numbers.
They saw a once-great pitcher hungering for another chance to re-establish himself in the game, and possibly a much-needed second lefty arm in a bullpen that features former Red Sox fixture Jonathan Papelbon as closer, Chad Qualls, Antonio Bastardo and Kyle Kendrick.
So they signed him to a one-year, non-guaranteed contract of $850,000, giving Willis the opportunity to find a new home on a perennial division winner looking to get back to the World Series in 2012.
So far, the results haven't been what he would have liked. In 1.2 innings pitched through Friday, he's given up five hits, three walks and five earned runs for an otherworldly ERA of 27.00. Command issues have continued to be an issue and his recent appearance was hampered by soreness in his forearm.
But Willis remains hopeful that he can get back on track and make his case to be part of the pen. "I can do whatever they want me to do – long relief, anything," he said. "I talked to (GM) Ruben (Amaro Jr.) a lot during the offseason before I even signed and wanted to see where my head was at, and if I was willing to take that role. I was all for it – I'm ready for that role."
He may not get a better one at this point, but he needs to find a way to stabilize himself after a poor start in exhibition action.
"At this point in my career, I just want to win and be part of a winning tradition," he said. "I always enjoyed pitching against them because they made me step up my game and battle. But it was fun, and I think they respected me as an opponent and I respected them – and honestly, I think that's the reason I'm over here."
Fellow lefty Lee sees a real up side to Willis' presence.
"He's been very successful for a while," he said. "Even though he's had some struggles the past couple of years, but he's got what it takes. He's had some injuries that have held him back, but he looks like he's in shape and ready to go. He's always been good against lefties."
Before the exhibition games began, pitching coach Rich Dubee spoke to the media in optimistic terms about Willis' potential contribution: "You have got to like his arm. A big left-handed pitcher with some deception in his delivery, he has a breaking ball that works and has got action to his fastball."
Willis grew up in Oakland and is a childhood friend of Philadelphia shortstop Jimmy Rollins ("I've known him since I was a kid, and our families are close," he said). And he has a good rapport with manager Charlie Manuel, a relationship dating back to the pitcher's Marlins glory days.
"I used to talk to him back then about baseball and my pitching, so he's happy to have me and just wants me to be myself," Willis said. "He's always in my ear talking to me and I feel right at home. The guys are here at 6:30 a.m. and ready to work, even a guy with 600-plus home runs like Jim Thome and a veteran like Juan Pierre. It's amazing to see everyone working so hard and really care about their craft. That makes you better."
Of all his early accomplishments, including being part of the Marlins' 2003 World Series championship over the Yankees, what is Willis most proud of?
"Being able to get back to the big leagues, honestly," he said. "I struggled and got sent down and continued to work hard and stay positive. I credit a lot to the Reds, because they wanted me to go down there help out some of the younger guys. I was almost like a player-coach. God blessed me to come back up because of my attitude and work ethic. I don't think I'd have made it back if I'd have just gone through the motions."
Willis' contract doesn't become guaranteed until April 2, so the Phillies still have time to assess whether the former All-Star will be a fit. And if things don't work out?
"God forbid my arm goes out tomorrow," he said, "but if it does, I'll be proud, and I'll walk away and put a fungo bat in my hand and start coaching."
Speaking of bats, Willis has always wielded one remarkably well in the majors. His lifetime batting average: .244 in 389 at bats with 13 doubles, six triples, nine home runs and 39 RBI. If the pitching thing doesn't work out so well, the Phillies might want to consider Willis as a pinch-hitter.
"They know what I bring to the table and know the attitude I have and the energy I bring every day," he said. "People enjoy it – it's kind of infectious. This isn't a façade or something I turn on and off. That's who I am. I'm always happy."
But the one thing that would make him happiest is a home in Philly.