Yesterday was a sad day for Florida Marlins fans and it’s history. A huge part of the Marlins 2003 World Series Championship and more importantly, one of the best characters to ever wear a Marlins uniform, retired. That player was Dontrelle Willis.
I’m deeply thankful for everything the game has done for me and I will always remember the great people I met along the way as well. #mlb
— Dontrelle Willis (@D_Train35) July 2, 2012
The Florida Marlins in 2002 traded starter Matt Clement and reliever Antonio Alfonseca for Julian Tavarez and a few other prospects, one of which was 22-year old prospect, Dontrelle Willis. The trade was actually the first trade by new Marlins general manager Larry Beinfest. Willis dominated the minor leagues in 2002, posting a 1.83 ERA in 24 starts with 128 strikeouts and just 24 walks in almost 158 innings. Prior to 2003, Baseball America ranked him as the 43rd best prospect in all of baseball, good for the fourth best prospect in the Marlins organization.
Willis made six starts in Double-A Carolina, posting a 1.46 ERA before the Marlins decided to call upon the talented left handed pitcher. The call-up was due in part to A.J. Burnett‘s elbow issues, which eventually led to Tommy John Surgery.
Willis made his first start on May 9, and Willis lasted six innings and allowed three runs while striking out seven and walking two batters. Willis went onto pitch 160 2/3 innings with a 3.30 ERA and 3.45 FIP in 2003. Willis would win Rookie of the Year award over Brandon Webb and Scott Podsednik. According to Fangraphs, Willis posted a 3.3 WAR in his rookie season. Willis also made the All-Star game in his rookie season.
After a couple of rough outings in the playoffs, Willis was relegated to be a L.O.G.G.Y the rest of the postseason. Even with this demotion, Willis played a huge role in the Marlins becoming World Champions for the second time in their brief history. In fact, Ozzie Guillen, who was the Marlins third base coach in 2003, gives a ton of credit to Willis for the Marlins winning:
“Obviously, it takes 25 guys to win the World Series,’’ Guillen said. “But I think this kid … took the pitching staff to the new level. For two or three months he was unhittable.’’
The next season, 2004 was a struggle for Willis, as he posted an 4.02 ERA and 4.01 FIP. Willis, along with the rest of his teammates followed up a great world series run, with a disappointing 2004 season. Even still, Marlins fans were confident that the Willis and the team could turn things around in 2005.
Those fans were correct. In 2005, Dontrelle Willis had the best season of his career in 2005, pitching 236 1/3 innings and posting a 2.63 ERA and 2.99 FIP. According to Fangraphs, Willis posted a 6.8 WAR that season, as he finished up as runner up to Chris Carpenter in the CY Young voting. That 2005 Willis season could go down as the best pitching season in Marlins history. Juan C. Rodriguez wants to know which Marlins pitching season you thought was the best.
Reportedly, the Marlins were offered Curtis Granderson and Justin Verlander by the Detroit Tigers for Willis after the 2006 season. The Marlins did not take the deal, as they thought Willis would only get better. I could never find any confirmation for this rumor, but it is out there.
Unfortunately, the Marlins once again failed to make the playoffs in 2006, and the team decided to have a “market correction,” or better known to Marlins as another fire sale. Willis and 2003 World Series fellow rookie teammate, Miguel Cabrera, were the only holdovers on the 2006 Marlins team.
Willis regressed in 2006 from his amazing 2005 season, but was still a very effective pitcher, as he threw 226 1/3 innings and posting a 3.87 ERA and 4.31 FIP. I bet no one at that time thought that this would be the best they would ever see again from Willis in his career.
In 2007, the wheels fell off of the D-Train, as the Marlins pitching staff that season struggled through injuries and inconsistencies. Willis was able to top 200 innings for the third consecutive season, but was otherwise ineffective. Willis walked a career-high 9.2 percent of batters and allowed 29 home runs in his 200-plus innings in 2007. Both of those career highs led to Willis posting a 5.17 ERA and 5,13 FIP for the season. The Marlins, as a team, finished that season at 71-91.
As Willis headed into his third season of arbitration, the Marlins had a tough decision on their hands. Even with his recent struggles, Willis was inline for a big payday, something that at the time, the Marlins could not afford (or at least they said they could not).
The Marlins decided to pair Willis with Miguel Cabrera in a trade to receive maximum value in a trade. The Marlins were able to do that, as they received two top prospects from the Detroit Tigers, ironically enough. The prospects the Marlins got in return were Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller. That trade never worked out for the Marlins, and not because Willis was able to turn it around.
The Tigers quickly signed Willis to a 3-year extension worth $29 million, which turned out to be a complete disaster for the Tigers. In 2008, walking 35 guys and striking out only 18, posting a 9.38 ERA. The Tigers decided to send Willis down to the minors for some work, but that lasted all but 37 innings, as Willis was shutdown with knee and other injury issues.
In 2009, Willis and the Tigers experienced more of the same pain, as Willis only made seven start, before being shutdown for the rest of the season with an anxiety disorder. The Tigers then decided to part ways with Willis in 2010, he spent the next several seasons trying to figure things out with different ball clubs
Willis posted a respectable posted a respectable 3.78 ERA and a 3.98 FIP and was worth between 16 to 20 WAR to the Marlins in his 1022 2/3 innings pitched. The Marlins got a great pitcher in Willis, but decided to part ways with him at the correct time.
His post-Marlins career numbers were pretty ugly. In 199 post-Marlins innings, he posted a 6.15 ERA and a 5.46 FIP. Willis lost all control of his pitches and in effect lost his effectiveness.
Willis’ career fizzled after the Marlins traded him and Miguel Cabrera to the Tigers following the 2007 season. Willis washed out with the Tigers, winning only four games, and ended up bouncing from one organization to the other, unable to throw the ball over the plate with any consistency.
I will have a post tomorrow featuring some of the top moments for Willis with the Marlins.