Putting eggs in the Willis basket

The battle for the back end of the Tigers starting rotation has been the story of the spring for Detroit fans. The Tigers are counting on two of the Jeremy Bonderman – Nate Robertson – Dontrelle Willis trio to bill out the last 40% of the starters innings. Bonderman has pretty much had the 4th spot assured leaving Robertson and Willis battling for the 5th spot. But with Robertson outpitching Willis by most measures, it appears that Robertson is on the block and Willis has that  last spot. A dangerous proposition to say the least.

Willis has been turning heads due to his 1.20 ERA in all of 15 innings this spring. This has been buoyed by the fact he’s only allowed 9 hits this spring. But he is still walking a batter every other inning and not striking out enough hitters (10 in 15 innings). Without seeing the games I really have no idea if Willis is limiting hits due to fooling guys or if it has been some combination of luck and defense. Given  what we know about batting average on balls in play, I’d give more credence to the latter rather than the former.

The results for Willis are encouraging, but only if you’re comparing to his past performance. It’s one thing to be hopeful that Willis is turning a corner based on his spring play, but it is another to think he is ready to be a member of a big league rotation.

Meanwhile Robertson has pitched quite well in his 19.2 innings on the mound. Robertson has adjusted his game and is fanning a batter an inning and has walked only 1 less than Willis.  Just like Willis though we shouldn’t make too much of limited spring stats. Due to injuries and ineffectiveness neither pitcher received considerable game action in 2009, but Robertson did more with his opportunity as a starter. After getting his elbow cleaned out Robertson made 6 starts and posted a 3.86 ERA (with a 1.714 WHIP). He walked too many (4.5/9 innings) and didn’t strike out enough (5.8/9 innings) but it was still ahead of Willis.

In 7 Dontrelle starts (including his good start against the Rangers) he walked 28 in 33.2 innings and only struck out 17 while allowing a 7.49 ERA).

Both players are huge question marks, as is Bonderman. Which makes the rumors that Robertson is being shopped all the more surprising. If Robertson is moved the safety net for Willis becomes Eddie Bonine. One tier down is Armando Galarraga. The Tigers are going to have to pay Robertson regardless (they’d have to eat a big chunk of his contract). I would prefer to see him try and contribute to the Tigers.

The speculation has been that whoever doesn’t make the rotation would be released. Willis, Robertson, and Bonderman have options left, but both could refuse assignment. While I understand that none of the 3 would want to toil in the minors, the chances to have significant playing time with the Tigers are still pretty good.

A trade of Robertson would be hasty at this point. While he probably has the most trade value of the 3, the Tigers likely can’t afford to lose his arm. He has outpitched his main competitors both this spring and in recent history and is in a similar salary situation. The Tigers are carrying the payroll of a competitor and have enough talent given their division to have a shot at the playoffs. Experimenting with a questionable 5th starter for too long could prove too costly. Kind of like in 2009.

23 thoughts on “Putting eggs in the Willis basket”

  1. I agree completely with what you’re saying here. I also don’t understand why Nate seems to be the odd-man out, because as you’ve noted, he’s had the better recent history among the three. I’m moderately confident that he can at least be a Major League caliber pitcher in this league at this point, even if he isn’t “good” per se. I recently wrote about Willis in my own blog — In short, I think his spring numbers (at least the ones that everyone seems so optimistic about) are completely fraudulent and I’d like to see him have some sustained success in real games before I’m buying. His walk and strikeout rates mirror what they’ve been in the minor leagues recently. That’s not encouraging to me.

  2. I haven’t heard anything about either player being released upon losing a bid for the rotation. What I have heard is either player could end up in the bullpen — not released.

  3. Any chance we can get a similar article tomorrow but with Dlugach’s name instead? I just want to find any way to get Everett out of there so that I can watch the games without a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. That’s all I ask for in the minimum. Just that one little thing.

  4. I’m ready for whatever happens. I think we have enough rotation depth to trade someone.

  5. I agree, with what we would have to eat and who we would get, the smart play here is to see what everyone does the first 4-8 weeks. Im sure someone will stink the joint up or something (injury) will pop up and an extra arm will come in handy. If we move Nate we are essentially throwing him out.

    I really want to see Dontrelle do well, but man it seems like its too good to be true. I would love it if he has overcome his demons and does well…………. time will tell there. This would be a great problem to have, a hot Dontrelle with 3 others going well. We still need a bat, 2010 seems like the year “to deal with it” until some of these huge contracts can be gone.



  6. I agree – I think Robertson has earned a spot in the rotation. Also, I like having another lefty. Bondermans performance this spring has given me great confidence in his ability to throw without pain but, none at all in his ability to get outs.

  7. I agree with Longball111… I honestly don’t see what Bonderman has done to “earn” the 4th rotation spot. And, in at least one of his outings, he openly said to reporters afterward that his split-finger pitch (which the team wants him to use to replace his ever-changing-but-never-accomplishing attempt at a serviceable changeup) “stunk.” So, you’ve got a guy who can still (a) throw heat after recovering from an injury; (b) still throws a fairly wicked slider; but (c) everyone’s concerned about because a starter usually needs to throw more than 2 major league-quality pitches. Exactly what sense does it make to not put Bondo in the bullpen again? Especially since Fu-Te Ni more or less equals Bobby Seay (lefty for lefty) and they’re looking for someone to replace the Zach Miner role (righty with an ability to go multiple innings). Makes no sense to me. And if Dontrelle does blow up (as many suspect), well… You gave him his chance, and Bondo’s right there to step in, and you call up Bonine to take the Zach Miner role. What part of this is too hard for Smoky Jim and Dombrowski to figure out?

    1. Bonderman is still just 27 years old and his future could still be with the Tigers.
      Even with just 2 pitches, he was able to win 14 games a few times. In 2006, he had 202 K’s/ 64 walks/ 212 Innings when he was just 23 years old.

      He could easily be a #3 or a solid #4 pitcher for nearly any rotation in the majors.

  8. It might be smart to trade Robertson right now while his ST stats give him some value. I don’t think many were expecting either Willis or Robertson to be decent this Spring. I think management is ready to eat those contracts. Right now they are just waiting for those guys to shot themselves in the foot. Keeping them around is probably like setting some gas cans next to a fire. They are going to blow up sooner or later. When that happens, management has every reason to let them go. This is it for them. If they blow this last chance, they are gone for good.

    We still got other rotation options with Coke, Bonine, and Galarraga.

  9. I like this move. We have three expensive pictures that won’t produce anywhere near their costs. Sell high on any of them and replace them with whatever you can get.

    1. First of all, pictures seldom recoup their costs, and b) there’s no “move” here to like, at least not yet and not in the context of selling high.

      1. Trading Verlander and his nice long contract isn’t selling high? Hmm, I wonder what SS we could get in trade for Verlander. 😉

        Somebody fill in the blanks or adjust slightly:

        Verlander + Everett + Laird + Inge + (any other throw-ins or money)



        1. You would get more for Verlander straight-up. Here is an analogy. Which would you rather read?

          1) Billfer’s DTW

          2) Billfer’s DTW + TSE’s comments?

          #1 is gonna win every time. It’s just logic.

          1. Your claim is illogical and untrue, I assure with 100% certainty. Therefore your rebuttal is invalid and means nothing.

  10. The reason why Nate is the one being left out is because Nate is the only one to never be good… besides in 2006 where he pitched way over his head.

  11. If Nate really does have value, deal him now. We’ve all seen enough of him to know that he’s a spot starter, long relief guy at best.

    If Bonderman can ever intellectually mature, he’s going to be very, very good. Just a big if.

  12. I agree with Steve. Given the opportunity, see what the three pitchers do during the first two or three months. I would actually start Willis in Toledo. If he pitches well his first two starts, bring him to the show. As far as Nate is concerned, if there is a good, young LHP we could deal for, with Nate in as a package deal, do that.

  13. Pingback: Waiting on Willis

Comments are closed.