LAKELAND, Fla. -- After two nightmarish seasons that included dreadful performances on the mound and bouts with anxiety disorder off it, Dontrelle Willis has the potential to be a nice comeback tale in 2010. Certainly, everyone in Tigers camp is rooting for a Willis resurrection. Although, not everyone is convinced it will happen, including some scouts who are still questioning his velocity and location.
There are positives for the first time in two years, though, including the fact that, Willis, 28, is said by everyone around here to finally be comfortable in the clubhouse and his own skin. He must be feeling a bit better on the mound, too, as he has a 0.82 ERA this spring. Another plus was Willis hitting 93 mph on the gun on Monday, the latest small sign he may be regaining some semblance of what was once a tremendous career. "Every time I see him pitch, he looks like the pitcher he was in Florida with us,'' says Miguel Cabrera, his teammate there and here.
That has rarely been the case since Willis and Cabrera came to the Tigers in a blockbuster trade with the Marlins in March 2008. Willis, a former National League Rookie of the Year who won a league-best 22 games for Florida in 2005, seemed to lose his ability almost as soon as he arrived, and when he was bad, he was almost off-the-charts bad. As he candidly put it during an interview recently, "I was terrible.''
In what has to be considered two of the most disappointing seasons in baseball history, Willis went 0-2 with a 9.38 ERA his first year as a Tiger, and 1-4 with a 7.49 ERA last year. His WHIP with Detroit is over 2. His confidence had fallen to zero.
Going into this spring, it looked like Willis' career was just about over. But while he's no certainty to regain his old form (or even a spot in a rotation), he's pitching well enough to be given a shot in the majors, and barring a sudden and unfortunate reversal he will be. His $12-million salary is one impetus to take him north, to be sure, but he is earning a spot on the staff. Whatever happens, he seems to be himself again.
"I'm having fun,'' Willis says.
Indeed, people around the team emphasize the changes in Willis' personal demeanor when talking about him, and that may in fact be the key for him. "He seems great, he seems relaxed. He seems a totally different guy,'' the Tigers' legendary manager Jim Leyland says.
"He seems to be at peace,'' pitching coach Rick Knapp adds.
But whether he is headed back as a pitcher remains up for debate. One scout said Willis appeared to be dealing with a back issue when he watched him pitch, and that scout said,, "He was horrible the day I saw him. He was throwing 85 with no location. He was just [fooling] minor-leaguers, but that's not going to work once the regular-season starts
When he first arrived in Lakeland two years ago, Willis definitely wasn't ready for major-league action. And he wasn't himself, and everyone could see that. Armed with a new $29-million deal as the lesser of two players who came from Florida in that trade, Willis fell to pieces practically the moment he arrived. Whether it was the new contract he signed with the Tigers before he ever threw a pitch for them or any comparison of his value to the superstar slugger Cabrera, he just flat lost it. He couldn't throw a strike. He was cranky. He was, in short, very bad.
"Sometimes the harder you work, the worse you get," Willis says. "I was in quicksand."
Willis says he learned from his experience. "Sometimes it takes struggles, and I've had my share, to make you realize what got you here," he said. "I'm enjoying my playing, and I'm enjoying my opportunity to play.''
By almost all accounts, Willis finally seems close to being his happy-go-lucky self. But whether he can regain the form that made him a sensation with the Marlins remains uncertain. Nobody's guaranteeing that yet.
It's no wonder that almost everyone around here remains cautiously optimistic. It's not only about how bad Willis was his first two years as a Tiger, but about how wacky his windup is, and how bad things can turn in a hurry if anything is slightly off in it.
Nobody will talk today about any changes he has made in his delivery, as if the slightest whisper might throw him off again. Instead, they seem to have accepted the wild windup but have emphasized mechanical "check marks.''
That strategy appears to be working, at least for the moment. Willis assessed his spring by saying, "So far, so good." But folks around here, including Willis himself, are crazily cautious. The praise still seems feint, even if it isn't intended to be. One comment heard repeatedly has been, "He's had a very good statistical spring."
In assessing Willis' situation, a Tigers person suggested a few days ago that Willis is in a three-way battle to make the rotation with Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson, two more former rotation regulars trying to return from disappointment, and another said Bonderman has the inside track for one spot, which would narrow the competition considerably. A scout agreed, saying "Bonderman's the best of the three. He's at least halfway back."
But Tuesday, the field seemed to grow a bit when Leyland mentioned Eddie Bonine and Armando Galarraga as possible candidates, which may be an indication the manager isn't overwhelmed with any of them yet. Speaking of the veteran trio of Willis, Robertson and Bonderman, who are due to make a combined $34.5 million this year, Leyland said, "They've all been OK. They've all shown improvement. But I don't think any of them have been lights out.''
Of Willis, Leyland said, "I think he feels good about himself, and he's a lot more comfortable in the organization. There are probably adjustments you have to make when you come to a new team, and he put pressure on himself. You say you don't have to make adjustments. But you really do. He is so much more who he is now than who he thinks he has to be. I couldn't be happier with him.''
The most important thing is that Willis is much happier. He has an opportunity. But considering what's come before here, it's a small window, and one he needs to take advantage of soon.
In this camp of rebirth, Cabrera seems like a new man himself.
As Leyland puts it, "He has a great face.'' Translated out of Leyland-ese, that means his outlook appears superb after dealing, at the team's behest, with his alcohol trouble. That's big for the Tigers, because as Leyland says, "He's an MVP candidate every year, along with (Albert) Pujols.''
Cabrera used to shield himself from the press at times. Now he seems much more open. When he saw me hovering, he took the initiative to call me over. That shows maturity. He isn't hiding from the questions, even if they are about his problems with alcohol.
"I feel good, and that's everything inside the field and everything outside,'' he says when asked about his personal changes, which included a stint in alcohol rehab. "I have my goals. I want to play for a long time. Thank God for giving me the opportunity to play baseball. When you're given a chance like this, you've got to do it.''
Cabrera has turned himself into a very good first baseman. But his life changes are much more important. Those who protected him in Florida, where the troubles started and were much worse than ever revealed, would be thrilled to see such a different guy. He appears to have grown up a lot.
"I'm happy with myself. I'm happy every day and doing everything I can to get better,'' Cabrera says. "I feel more comfortable with what I'm going to do and what my goals are. I'm going to work to put up special numbers in the field.''
By taking a powder on the lost weekend last year, he eliminated himself from serious MVP talk (though he did inexplicably get one first-place vote from one person who wasn't paying attention). But take Leyland's words to heart. He seems to be in a much better place this year. He'd be a solid MVP pick for 2010.
• Phil Hughes is leading the race to be the Yankees' No. 5 starter, with long shot Sergio Mitre appearing to be the only (small) competition left. Joba Chanberlain appears ticketed for the bullpen.
• Ian Desmond is winning the competition to be the Nationals' starting shortstop with Cristian Guzman slated to be the utilityman. Guzman's arm isn't 100 percent. But beyond that, Desmond is the better player. Guzman makes a decent reserve since he can presumably play all the infield positions (he's played them all except first base). The Nats have their best pitcher in the minors(Stephen Strasburg), no sense having their best infielder there as well.
• Adam Dunn and the Nationals have discussed the idea of a multiyear deal. But with the DH unavailable to him in the National League, Nats people say they think he's better at first than in the outfield, and they have told Dunn that he needs to turn himself into a serviceable first baseman before they make him an offer befitting a 40-homer man. So he's working hard at it.
• The case of Elijah Dukes is a shame. While there was no one incident that triggered his release, the Nationals felt it would improve clubhouse chemistry for him to be gone. Plus, he seemed to have lost his power suddenly. Johnny Damon said it's a real waste, saying Dukes was "a $100 million talent." There's no word yet on whether anyone else will take a chance on Dukes.
• Damon, incidentally, has fit in beautifully with the Tigers and already appears to be a team leader. No surprise there.
• Joe Mauer's $184-million, eight-year deal is the talk of camps. No surprise there, either.
• Lance Berkman's knee surgery is Exhibit A why teams should not pick up options ahead of time. Berkman tried to put public pressure on the Astros to pick his up. They made the right call to wait.
• Jim Edmonds looks like he's going to overcome a year away from the game to win a spot with the Brewers.
• Lefty reliever Joe Beimel was a solid pickup for the Rockies on a minor-league deal at $850,000, bolstering a deep pen that was hurt by Huston Street's shoulder weakness. While he's expected back, they are going to go slow with Street.
• Jose Reyes is back sooner than anyone anticipated. And that includes Mets people. Outfielder Jeff Francoeur told New York writers, "The way things have gone for us, you figured June.''