Yeah, I hardly believed my eyes when I read the headline, "Dontrelle Willis is probably going to make the Tigers' rotation," on HardballTalk yesterday.
But it really seems to be true. Coming into Spring Training, it really did look like Willis was simply going through the rounds to get his paycheck and disappear from our collective memory forever. As Craig reminded us, Willis even went as far as to call himself "terrible" while speaking with Lynn Henning of the Detroit News roughly a month ago.
Coming into the spring, Willis was expected to battle with Jeremy Bonderman, Armando Galarraga, Nate Robertson and Eddie Bonine for the final two spots in Detroit's rotation, behind Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. Then again, did anyone actually expect to see Willis' name slotted into the rotation by the end of March? Because at this point, it seems damn likely.
Galarraga was optioned to Triple-A yesterday, and in case you missed it, Willis has been shockingly good this spring: five hits and one run allowed in 10 innings, with 6 strikeouts, five walks and zero home runs allowed. Meanwhile, Bonderman, Bonine and Galarraga have gotten smacked around, while Robertson leads the team with 10 strikeouts in 10.1 innings thus far this spring.
But realistically, it seems likely that Bonderman and Willis start the year in the rotation, given their respective contracts and track records. Bonderman was once viewed as the team's future ace, but he's been killed by injuries the past two years. Even though he's had a rough spring, he's probably got the most upside of any of Detroit's options, so if he's healthy he seems likely to land a spot in Detroit's rotation. Meanwhile, Willis is also among the team's highest paid players, and few people have forgotten when he took the National League by storm with a fun-loving attitude and an incredibly deceptive and fun-to-watch delivery.
Just to reflect a little, let's take a quick look at just how bad Dontrelle was the past two years. In 15 games, 14 of them starts, he posted a 8.27 ERA in just 57 innings. He struck out 35 and walked an insane 63 batters, with a brutal WHIP of 2.05 for the period. And the troubles continued in the minors, where he made starts at all three levels of the minor league ladder, posting a mid-4's ERA and a 61/45 K/BB ratio in 93 innings. His velocity was down, his changeup started to get smacked around, and his command and control completely fell apart. He was plagued by numerous injuries and apparent anxiety issues. From the looks of things, Willis' shelf life as a productive major league pitcher was over.
But here we are, in Spring Training 2010, and Willis is back in line to start every fifth day in the Motor City. Every spring, there are stories that you just can't predict (Ron Washington, anyone). When Dontrelle is starting for the Tigers in April, I think that you can chalk that up as one that nobody saw coming.