Yesterday, the Phillies released left-handed pitcher Dontrelle Willis, who was previously signed to a minor league contract. Once a bright, young star for the Marlins, D-Train has bounced around to various teams in the past few seasons, trying to regain his form. Given the injury to Tim Byrdak and general lack of depth at Triple-A Buffalo, Sandy Alderson and company should consider inking Willis to a minor league contract.
Willis debuted with the Marlins in 2003 and won National League Rookie of the Year honors, posting a 14-6 record with a 3.30 ERA (3.90 xFIP), 1.282 WHIP and 8.0 K/9, en route to winning the World Series (although he struggled in the playoffs). D-Train had arguably his best season in ’05, going 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA (3.68 xFIP), 1.134 WHIP, 3.09 K/BB and fWAR of 6.2, finishing second in the NL Cy Young voting behind Chris Carpenter. Since then, Willis has been unable to regain his form and has played for the Tigers, Diamondbacks and most recently, the Reds. Last season in Cincinnati, Willis pitched 75.2 innings, allowing 78 hits and 37 walks while striking out 57.
Willis did not impress enough during spring training to crack the Phillies pitching staff, surrendering five earned runs on five hits with four walks and zero strikeouts in two and two-third innings. His career stats aren’t that impressive either; his career K/9 is only 6.6 and his career BB/9 is 3.7. So why bother with an unimpressive thirty-year old pitcher who hasn’t had real success lately? Because he can retire lefties.
Against righties during his career, Willis has a K/BB of just 1.48 while the batters are hitting .282/.358/.430. When facing lefties, however, he owns a 3.59 K/BB along with an opposing slash line of .200/.274/.288, while only serving up 11 long balls in 888 plate appearances (1.24%, compared with a 2.32% mark against righties). Against all opponents, Willis has also shown the ability to keep the ball on the ground, posting a 54.5% ground ball rate last season with the Reds, and a 45.9% rate during his career. And while it might seem trivial that he can handle the bat (his career batting line is .244/.287/.378 with nine homers), it’s always a plus to have an extra guy around to use as a pinch hitter/runner if necessary.
Signing Willis to a minor league contract would present the Mets with two options. The first would be to use him as a LOOGY out of the bullpen. With Byrdak out, the remaining options in camp are either unappealing (Garrett Olson and Chuck James) or too inexperienced (Josh Edgin). It’s also hard to argue that C.J. Nitkowski, who the Mets are considering signing and who hasn’t appeared in the Majors since 2005, is a better choice than D-Train.
If Willis doesn’t make the big league team, the Mets could also stick him in Buffalo to provide depth in the rotation, and as last year’s early-season injuries to Boof Bonser and Jenrry Mejia proved, you can never have enough pitching depth. Either way, signing Willis is a low-risk gamble for the Mets, the kind Sandy Alderson loves. Willis will probably find a job somewhere, and with Opening Day three weeks away, the Mets would need to move quickly if they want to pursue this option.