SARASOTA, Fla. – New Orioles pitcher Dontrelle Willis arrived at the Ed Smith Stadium Complex at daybreak Wednesday morning hoping for another chance at continuing his major league career.
Willis, signed to a minor-league contract on Tuesday that will pay him $700,000 if he stays on the big league roster throughout the season, was happy to be in an Orioles uniform. He will audition for a role in the bullpen as a left-handed specialist, as he did this spring with the Phillies, who released Willis Friday. He said he had other offers but chose the Orioles.
“The opportunity was definitely good,” he said. “I’ve played with a bunch of these guys and against these guys, so I’ve always had a bunch of respect for them.” The role is still the same, so I’m definitely still getting used to coming out of the bullpen, but it seemed like their bullpen was already set for Philadelphia. It’s just another opportunity to go out there with another young, talented team and go out there and show my stuff.”
Willis, 30, hasn’t been told when he will pitch in a game yet. He struggled with some elbow soreness earlier this spring and struggled once he got into games this spring, allowing five runs in 2 2/3 innings and recording a 16.87 ERA in three appearances.
And since Willis is arriving in Orioles camp more than a month into spring training, Orioles executive vice president for baseball operations Dan Duquette said he will likely begin the season in Triple-A to get adjusted to the reliever role.
Duquette said the team was interested in Willis because of his success against left-handed hitters. Last season he held lefties to a .127 average and had 20 strikeouts versus two walks.
Over the past four seasons, Willis had held lefties to a .185 batting average and has a 2.79 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
"He’s only 30 years old," Duquette said. "And a lot of times these left-handed relievers are just beginning their careers in their early- to mid-30s."
Willis said he's still getting used to a relief role for the first time in his career. Willis’ best days were as a starter with the Marlins, where he won the National League Rookie of the Year in 2003 and finished second for the National League Cy Young Award voting in 2005 when he was 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA.
“The bullpen is a different beast for me in my career,” Willis said. “I’ve never done it before, so at first it was a little shaky, then I finally started to get under my bearings and get comfortable about going out there, because everybody is different in the bullpen, how you get ready and how you get prepared and stuff like that. I was defintiely getting my bearings under my feet so I’m going to continue to do that stuff to get used to my role over here.”
The Orioles are Willis’ fifth team since the beginning of the 2010 season – and he was 1-6 with a 5.00 ERA in 13 starts with the Reds last season after beginning the season in Triple-A – but Willis believes he can still contribute at the major league level.
“I definitely hope so or I’ll go home,” Willis said. “It’s as simple as that. I hope so. But like I said, I have fun playing baseball and the day I don’t I’ll go home. I have kids and a family and we sacrifice a lot to be here as far as the family goes, but I love playing baseball. I love the camaraderie and I love being around. If I go home and if somebody wants me to be a coach and get a fungo, I’ll do that too.”