I still remember vividly exactly where I was when I heard that the Cubs had traded Dontrelle Willis. You might not think that would be true, but at the time, Willis was considered one of the hottest pitching prospects in the Cubs organization, having just completed a season at Boise in which he went 8-2 in 15 starts with a 2.98 ERA and 1.015 WHIP (just 19 walks and 77 strikeouts in 93⅔ innings).
I was at HoHoKam Park awaiting the start of this spring training game. I knew about Willis and his promise, but the Cubs were coming of an 88-win season in 2001, so despite the promise of Willis, I was pleased that the Cubs had acquired a rotation starter in Matt Clement and a closer in Antonio Alfonseca. Though Clement had a good year in 2002, the Cubs flopped, losing 95 games.
Though Willis had promise, I don't think anyone at that time would have predicted he'd be in the major leagues just one year later, winning the National League Rookie of the Year award at age 21 and helping the Marlins to... well, we don't have to talk about that, do we?
Clement had three decent seasons for the Cubs and was a key contributor to the 2003 NL Central title. Alfonseca... not so much. He was demoted from closer and left as a free agent after 2003. One of my most vivid memories of Alfonseca was when he ran onto the field from the bullpen and bumped an umpire in this 2003 game against the Cardinals. For that, he received a seven-game suspension; the joke was that the Cubs were appealing, asking for the suspension to be doubled.
Even though Clement was productive, obviously the Cubs would have been far better off with Willis in the rotation, at least for Willis' first few years -- although there's no evidence, from what we know of the Cubs' organizational promotion practices at the time, that the team would have promoted him as fast as the Marlins did. He had a great year between Low-A and High-A in 2002 and was in the major leagues after six starts in Double-A in 2003.
After four good-to-excellent seasons (including a second-place Cy Young finish in 2005), Willis forgot how to throw strikes. He was awful in 2007 and went to the Tigers along with Miguel Cabrera in that eight-player deal.
After that he bounced from the Tigers to the Diamondbacks to the Giants to the Reds to the Phillies to the Orioles; in 2009 he was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and spent considerable time on the DL. He hasn't pitched in the major leagues since 13 mostly mediocre starts with the Reds in 2011; he made four mostly bad appearances (one start) for the Orioles' Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk in 2012 and then asked to be placed on the voluntarily retired list.
And now, nearly 11 years after Andy MacPhail -- that's right, MacPhail was still the GM in March 2002 -- shipped him away, he's a Cub again. It's a minor-league deal:
Dontrelle Willis' retirement is over -- and the left-hander is trying to resurrect his career where it started, with the Cubs. CBSSports.com Insider Jon Heyman reports Willis has signed a minor-league deal with the Cubs. Although Willis did not receive an invite to big-league camp, he will get chances in big-league camp if he is throwing well, according to Heyman.
Willis will turn 31 next Saturday. As the headline says, why not? This is a lightning-in-a-bottle type of signing. If he doesn't have anything left, he'll simply be released at the end of spring training. If he looks OK, he probably starts the year at Iowa as starting pitching depth. It's a real no-lose situation, with the possibility that somehow, Willis recovers the ability that he lost so suddenly six years ago. In addition to his once-great pitching, Willis was always a pretty good hitter (career: .244/.287/.378 with 13 doubles, six triples and nine home runs in 389 at-bats).
I would have written about this Friday night when the news first broke, but I was about to see a showing of "This Is 40", which isn't a great movie, although it has its funny moments. There's also a line in which one of the characters disses the Cubs, and I'm not going to repeat it here. Will I always remember where I was when I heard the Cubs reacquired Dontrelle Willis? Probably not. I'd settle for him becoming a competent major-league pitcher again.