There was some sad news out of spring training just a few days ago.
In case you missed it, it was Dontrelle Willis officially announcing his retirement at the young age of 33. I’ll admit this caught me off guard at first. Dontrelle Willis? I thought he’d left baseball years ago.
It doesn’t seem all that long ago that the Tigers pulled off what will go down as the greatest trade in team history. It was December 4, 2007. General Manager Dave Dombrowski, like a thief in the night, had just robbed the Florida Marlins blind. Sent packing to Miami were some guys named Dallas Trahern, Burke Badenhop, Frankie De La Cruz, and Mike Rabelo, along with prospects Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller. In return, the Tigers were getting Miguel Cabrera and Willis.
At the time, there was some risk involved. Maybin and Miller had been touted as future stars. Some believed Maybin was the most dynamic Tiger prospect since Al Kaline. But, as Dombrowski noted at the press conference announcing the trade, “Prospects are just that: Prospects.” Maybin never panned out in either Florida or San Diego. Miller, after struggling early in his career, has found a niche as a lights-out bullpen lefty who just this winter signed a huge contract with the Yankees.
But the Tigers acquired Cabrera, a once-in-a-generation player who will likely go into the Hall of Fame wearing a cap with an Old English “D.” And that alone makes this one of the most lopsided trades of all time, right up there with Brock-for-Broglio.
But the great unknown in the trade, at least at the time, was Willis.
He had not yet turned 26 years old. But nobody knew what pitcher the Tigers were getting. Was it the Willis who was a two-time All-Star with the Marlins, who’d won 14 games as a rookie in 2003 when the team won the World Series, and who’d won 22 games in 2005? Or was it the Willis who’d gone 12-12 and 10-15 in the two years since?
Two weeks after the trade, Detroit gave Willis a 3-year, $29 million contract extension. It turned out to be the worst move they could have made.
Willis was one of the most colorful players to come along in a long, long time. With his distinctive high leg kick, he was always fun to watch. There was a buzz whenever he pitched. He had a love for the game, and showed it with his enthusiasm on the field. He had a great personality. He was a fun interview. A genuinely nice guy in a sports world that was woefully short of them.
But Willis never panned out in Detroit. In three years, he won a grand total of two games, sending scores of fans scurrying for their calculators to determine how much he’d gotten paid per victory. In 24 games as a Tiger, he had an ERA of 6.86. His WHIP was even uglier, at 1.931. Willis admitted to having anxiety issues on the mound.
This was not how it was supposed to be.
Finally, in June of 2010, Detroit traded Willis to the Arizona Diamondback for Billy Buckner, whom the Tigers released little more than a month later.
Success continued to elude Willis after leaving Detroit. He won only two more big-league games. He has been released five times. When he signed as a free agent with the Milwaukee Brewers in January of 2015, it marked his tenth organization. You can count them: The Chicago Cubs (two stints), the Marlins, the Tigers, the Diamondbacks, the San Francisco Giants (also two stints), the Cincinnati Reds, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Baltimore Orioles, the Los Angeles Angels, and the Brewers. He has been all over the baseball map, including stops in the independent leagues with the Long Island Ducks and the Bridgeport Bluefish.
In retrospect, it is amazing that Willis hung on as long as he did. He hadn’t played in the majors since 2011 in Cincinnati. He hadn’t really done anything since that 22-win season in 2005. Apparently baseball organizations have plenty of money to keep tossing around on washed up pitchers.
Willis could also show some pop at the plate. He was a .244 career hitter in nine-years, with nine home runs, including some real tape measure jobs. The question lingered at the back of everybody’s mind whenever they saw him continue to struggle on the mound: Why didn’t Willis simply convert himself into a position player, where he had a decent shot at being successful? It had been done in the past, most recently by Rick Ankiel, a pitcher who had shown promise, but suddenly couldn’t find the plate. He re-invented himself as an outfielder, and played seven more seasons in the big leagues.
But, for whatever reason, Willis never made the switch, and one wonders if he’d still be playing in the big leagues somewhere today if he had.
Many claimed that Willis’s high leg kick ultimately screwed up his mechanics, and that once that happened, he didn’t know how to get things right again. Others maintained that his problems were all in his head, that there was nothing physically wrong with him.
But now it is all over. The D-Train will never roll down the track again. And that is too bad for baseball.