PHOENIX — Dontrelle Willis may or may not make the Milwaukee Brewers’ Opening Day roster. After all, the two-time All-Star and 2003 National League rookie of the year hasn’t pitched in the major leagues since going 1-6 in thirteen starts with the Reds in 2011. But for as long as he is with the Brewers this season, Willis’ good humor, wide smile and infectious personality will make him hard to miss in the clubhouse.
Reliever Chris Perez, signed, like Willis, to a minor-league contract, has the locker to the left of the former All-Star. He appreciates what Willis brings to the clubhouse.
"Everybody knows who he is. He brings an energy and excitement and fun in here and on the field. That’s really important, especially during these early spring training mornings. It’s true late in the season, too. You need somebody with energy," Perez said. "The other thing is that everybody knows he’s been around. He’s in a good spot in his life. He’s been at the top. He’s been there and done that. But after the last couple years he knows it can be taken away from you, too. He’s got a great outlook."
Signed by the Brewers on Jan. 21, Willis bounced around the minor leagues the last three seasons, doing stints in the systems of the Orioles, Angles and Giants, and with the Long Island Ducks and Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League.
"After the last few years, I’m enjoying every minute of this," said the 6-foot-4 lefty of his invitation to Brewers spring training. "This is a talented ball club. It’s my responsibility to come here and push the younger guys. The younger guys? I never thought I’d say that. But I think I can do this, and if I can’t, I want to help other guys."
Known as "D-Train" in his prime, Willis still wears his cap slightly askance and without hint of arc in the bill. He still bounces more than he walks and at 33 years old is a young man. But he recognizes he’s a different athlete than the kid that pitched the Marlins to the 2003 World Series championship.
"Right now, I feel great. I’m in good shape. I’m in better shape than I was at 20. I have to be. And I know more about what I’m doing and what could happen. I’m healthy today, but I know that could change tomorrow. Right now, though, I feel like I can compete with the best in the world."
As a non-roster invitee, Willis is a longshot to make the Brewers’ Opening Day roster.
"I’m going to get a shot at making the team. I’m here now and I’ve got a shot. That’s all anybody in here could ask for," said Willis as he looked around the clubhouse. "I’m prepping for whatever I’m told to do out there. Bullpen, long-guy, short, start. It doesn’t matter. This is a talented team with some good young arms. Wherever they need me, I’m going to do whatever I can to get people out."
Manager Ron Roenicke sees a couple different ways Willis could make the club.
"He could be a situational guy for us. But he could be a long guy too. There’s quite a few things he could do. Out of camp we won’t extend him as a starter. But we’ll get him some innings and see what he looks like and then see how that fit is. Long guy is something we need with Marco (Estrada) gone. Spot starter or that situational role. We just need to see what he has."
While Willis’ goal is to make the big-league team, he’s been around long enough to enjoy the journey and wherever it leads.
"If I don’t make it, well, I live a good life. I have beautiful children. I’m just a (expletive) ballplayer. God has a way of humbling people. But shame on me if I don’t enjoy this experience."