Willis placed on 15-day DL
Doctors start Tigers lefty on treatment for anxiety
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The long-speculated decision on Dontrelle Willis ended up being an unexpected diagnosis and a trip to the disabled list. The Tigers placed the former 22-game winner on the 15-day DL Sunday morning with anxiety disorder.
The diagnosis, Willis said, came after team doctors and specialists consulted with the once dominant starter who, lately, has turned struggling pitcher.
"They had a very concerned look on their faces," Willis said.
Willis cited blood tests that were conducted earlier this month that raised concerns. Research suggests there are no lab tests to diagnose an anxiety disorder, but such tests can be used to look for physical causes for symptoms, ruling out other factors.
Willis said doctors told him that the condition is easily treatable. He'll start on a course of treatment immediately, though it wasn't immediately known whether he'll stay back in Florida, go back to Detroit, or go home.
Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski was reluctant to comment on specifics, citing medical privacy laws. He agreed, however, that the condition is treatable.
"It's been something that our doctors have discovered," Dombrowski said, "and we've been working on it for a while to try to make sure exactly what this is."
Thus ended the Spring Training effort from Willis to try to regain his old form after control problems turned his 2008 season into a major disappointment. He began last year in the Tigers rotation, but went on the DL after two starts with a hyperextended right knee that cost two months. Once he returned from a month-long rehab stint, his continued control woes resulted in a longer trip to the Minor Leagues, where he spent most of the summer working with coaches and instructors on rebuilding his delivery to something more consistent. He returned to the Majors in September to make three starts.
Willis finished the season with an 0-2 record and 9.38 ERA, walking 35 batters, allowing 18 hits and getting 18 strikeouts in 24 innings.
His early work in Spring Training in January and February showed some improved command and, in turn, some hope that he could rebound to be an effective Major League hurler. Once Spring Training games began, however, he had mixed results in his first couple starts and started to battle with his command again. Eventually, he reverted back to his old delivery with a high leg kick.
Willis last pitched in an intrasquad game last Tuesday, throwing 4 2/3 scoreless innings with two hits, a walk and five strikeouts against a group of Class A and Double-A hitters. He had given up 13 earned runs on 19 hits over 11 2/3 innings in five appearances before that, including an exhibition against Team Venezuela.
"He needed to throw strikes on a more consistent basis, which he did his last outing," Dombrowski said. "But he also has to throw strikes when he really lets loose, too. I think at times, you see the arm strength. At times, you see the breaking ball. But he hasn't shown the consistency that he can do it."
Manager Jim Leyland, teammates and coaches noted in recent days how hard Willis was competing, trying to get his game back in form. Still, given the competition, Willis was not expected to make the roster.
"We want Dontrelle Willis to pitch very successfully with the Detroit Tigers," Leyland said. "And whatever it takes to get him to that point, it's far beyond my understanding. I'm a baseball manager, and that's what I deal with. I want more than anything for Dontrelle Willis to be successful on the field for the Detroit Tigers. That has been a problem for him to this point, needless to say."
With trade options nonexistent, that would've left the Tigers with two choices. They could've asked him to accept another Minor League option, which he could've declined to become a free agent, or they could've released him. Either way, they were responsible for the $22 million remaining on his contract through 2010, part of which could be covered by insurance.
Dombrowski pointed out that the Tigers consulted with the Commissioner's Office before making the move. He said he had not dealt with a player with this condition until now in his career as a GM.
"In order to place somebody on the disabled list, it has to be an accepted medical condition, or the Commissioner's Office would not accept it," Dombrowski said. "And they have accepted this."
Willis could've challenged the move if he didn't agree with the findings. He accepted the decision after discussions with team officials as well as the doctors.
"I'm concerned," Willis said, "and I'm not overruling it."
Several Major League players have gone on the disabled list with conditions grouped under anxiety disorders. Perhaps the best-known case in recent years is Royals starter Zack Greinke, who abruptly left Spring Training in 2006 and eventually went on the DL with what was diagnosed as social anxiety disorder. He missed most of the season before returning late in the year, but has recovered to become a top young starter in the American League. Pete Harnisch and Jim Eisenreich are also listed among the better-known baseball players who have had anxiety disorders.
"It's unfortunate," Willis said, "but I'm just more concerned about my health. Don't get me wrong, I wish the best for this ballclub, and I love the game of baseball, and I want to be around for a long time. But you have to be honest with yourself. If your health's not right, you have to take care of it yourself."
Willis drew a distinction between anxiety disorder and other conditions, such as depression.
"I'm never depressed," Willis said. "I've always been a high-energy guy. This is something totally different. I've always been a guy that's been upbeat, but they see something totally different. This isn't something where I'm too amped-up and I don't know where I'm at, running sprints up and down the parking lot. This is something where they see something in my blood they don't like.
"I'm not crazy. My teammates might think I'm crazy, but this is not something like that. This is something totally different that I'm concerned about. This is something in my blood."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.