Sam Donnellon: Phillies' Willis move fits Gillick's M.O.

Dontrelle Willis is seen by the Phillies as a lefty specialist out of the bullpen.
Dontrelle Willis is seen by the Phillies as a lefty specialist out of the bullpen. (ASSOCIATED PRESS.)
Posted: December 14, 2011

PAT GILLICK is not working for the Cubs and he's not with the Dodgers, either. There was a report that he went to the Dominican Republic last month to meet with Aramis Ramirez and to Cuba to scout Yeonnis Cespedes - which means, if you're any kind of student of the man, that he is still an important part of the Phillies' brain trust.

So fret not over Dontrelle Willis, whose late-day tweet - "I'm fired up be with the fighting phillies and looking forward to this season" - confirmed his status as the newest Phillies free-agent signee, pending a physical scheduled for today. A source said the Phillies see Willis as a lefty specialist out of the bullpen. He reportedly agreed to a 1-year contract for less than $1 million, plus incentives.

I don't know whose call it was to take a flyer on the well-traveled lefty, but, man, does it smack of Pat. Freddy Garcia, Adam Eaton, Jayson Werth, J.C. Romero, Jamie Moyer - Pat plays the GM game like Fuzzy Zoeller used to play golf, whacking it into the woods one second, rescuing it another, chipping into the hole from the fringe for a birdie. When he's good, he seems like a wizard. When he's bad, he seems like a dunce. But there's no denying the record wherever he's been, or his knack for getting out before the structures he builds collapse from injury and age.

The Phillies are getting close to this. The first baseman in whom they've sunk $125 million for the next five seasons is rehabbing a surgically repaired Achilles' and is coming off his smallest home-run output. The second baseman who many believe is the real face and leader of the team, has, um, issues with his knees. The third baseman can't seem to stay healthy. Most of all, the two big arms at the top of the rotation are digging into their 30s and have thrown a ton of innings already.

But their time is not up. Their time is now, just as it was when they won 102 games last season. And the best evidence of that is Gillick is still on the job, still trying to help the Phillies with the little moves that so often are the difference between getting all the way there and getting oh-so-close.

As the Seattle GM in 2000, Gillick was forced to trade away disgruntled Ken Griffey Jr. Over the next two seasons, he added players like Mark McLemore, Stan Javier and Mike Cameron.

The Mariners made the ALCS two consecutive seasons. They won 116 games in 2001.

You look at that 2008 Phillies championship team and what do you see? Eric Bruntlett filling in nicely for a month when Jimmy Rollins went down. Jayson Werth, signed for a little, delivering a lot. J.C. Romero acquired for nothing. Matt Stairs picked up late, Jamie Moyer, the No. 2 man on a staff of starters that didn't have a 98-mph fastball among them.

And lest we forget Greg Dobbs, another low-cost signee, batting .301.

You look at last season's 102-win team. The rookie rightfielder, heir apparent to Werth, failed miserably. Ben Francisco was not an everyday player. Rule 5 pick Michael Martinez was no Shane Victorino. Brian Schneider was no Chris Coste. And as well as he played during the regular season - and as bad as Placido Polanco looked at the plate - Wilson Valdez did not get a postseason at-bat.

So, yeah, the time is now, and the moves this winter represent that. Even at age 41, Jim Thome should be a better lefthanded bat off the bench than they've had since Stairs left and Dobbs' bat went AWOL. Laynce Nix is a risk, but he has pretty good pop from the left side, too. Wonderful as 102 wins are, who among us wouldn't trade a few wins next season for a little more midsummer cage-rattling at the yard? And who says you can't have both?

The idea of using Willis out of the bullpen is interesting, seeing as how he has made just three relief appearances in 205 games over his career. Still, as risks go, this isn't much of one. Willis is historically nasty against lefthanded hitters. Even last year, when he went 1-6 with the Reds, Willis held lefthanded hitters to a .127 batting average (7-for-55) and a .169 on-base percentage. He struck out 20. He walked two.

He also has hit nine home runs over his career and had 12 hits in 31 at-bats last season (.387).

If he can't make the adjustment in spring training, you simply cut him and his nonguaranteed contract loose and give Joe Savery a chance at the job. If he can, though? Well, the Phillies will have another formidable arm to bridge the innings between their luxurious starting staff and drop-dead closer. And the expiration date on this run might get extended.

Willis, after all, won't even turn 30 until next month.

On this team, still just a kid.


Send email to donnels@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

www.philly.com/SamDonnellon.

 

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