Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
The sky could have been the limit for lefty Dontrelle Willis back in 2005. After a strong Rookie of the Year campaign in 2003, and an adequate following season, Willis placed second in the Cy Young voting in the National League in ’05 as a member of the Florida Marlins.
That year, the Willis posted a 2.63 ERA over 236 1/3 innings and lead the league in wins (22), complete games (7), and shutouts (5), missing out on the award by a narrow margin to longtime St. Louis Cardinal Chris Carpenter.
After again performing well (though nowhere near Cy Young level) in 2006, the wheels fell off of Willis’ career trajectory. After posting a 3.44 ERA and earning 14.6 fWAR from ’03-’06, Willis posted a 5.65 ERA (0.5 fWAR) from ’07-’11, with 2011 being the last year he has pitched in the majors.
Obviously this career trend is not encouraging to prospective employers, and while D-Train has pitched in AAA every year since 2011, he has failed each time to earn a chance at a Major League comeback.
The potential silver lining here is that every team to date has used Willis as a starter, and the Brewers could try to kick-start his career out of the bullpen, just as they did with lefty Zach Duke. It’s hard to say whether Willis’ career splits are even vaguely useful for projecting his current value, but Willis has excelled against lefties in his career.
Righties hit Willis hard toward the end of his time in the Majors, leaving him with a career .788 OPS against them, while lefties managed an OPS of just .562.
This could point to Willis slotting in to the LOOGY (Lefty One-Out GuY) role, a currently vacant job for the Brewers, and while D-Train is definitely a long shot to make the team, but he does have an invite to Major League Spring Training.
While he seems ages away in terms of performance, Willis is in no way be too old for a successful comeback. Despite first appearing in the Majors more than 10 years ago, Willis just turned 33, less than a year older than Jim Henderson.
The Brewers definitely need a lefty out of the bullpen, and while Willis is no doubt further from Big league ready than Duke was, the signing is a no-risk one, with the potential to give the Crew a (small) piece to their bullpen puzzle.