Willis Takes Another Step Forward


In his quest to become a major league pitcher again, Tigers lefty Dontrelle Willis has a long way to go. Diagnosed with an anxiety disorder last Spring, Willis has made just 14 starts for the Tigers over the past two years. In that time, he has walked 63 batters in just 57.2 innings. Most of us have written him off for 2010, and did so long before anyone reported to Lakeland.

Make no mistake though, Willis is not only a candidate to pitch for the Tigers in 2010, he’s vying for the starting rotation.

In a competition that includes high-priced veterans Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson along with former 13 game winner Armando Galarraga, Willis is the longest of long shots. After watching him struggle with control, not just command, over the past two years in Detroit, it would be difficult to envision the team putting a ton of faith in his abilities, and rightly so.

But so far this Spring, Galarraga has been falling behind almost every hitter he faces, a problem that haunted him last year, Bonderman still must prove he’s healthy, and Robertson must re-establish himself after two seasons of injury and ineffectiveness. If there ever was an opportunity for Willis to step up, it’s in front of him right now.

Willis made his Srping debut last week versus Toronto, and promptly walked the first batter he faced. He got on track quickly to retire the next three hitters in order. In his second frame, he again issued a lead-off walk, but again held the Jays scoreless, allowing only an infield hit. In that same game, Robertson walked three and allowed three runs in 1.1 innings, and Galarraga walked two while yielding four runs in one inning.

This afternoon against the Braves, Willis took another big step, tossing two more scoreless innings. He retired the side in order in the third, then walked Jason Heyward to lead-off the fourth before striking out the next two batters and inducing a ground out to end his day.

I’d still consider Willis a long shot, but a few more good outings and the tone of this conversation changes dramatically. If Galarraga continues to pitch behind in the count, if Bonderman isn’t healthy, if Robertson fails to show he’s ready to take a starter’s role again, then maybe Willis might just make it all the way back. But he needs to continue to show that he can be effective again. So far, so good, but there is still a long way to go.