Dontrelle Willis will turn 30 in January, and maybe that is cause enough for his next baseball adventure. He has already won rookie of the year, finished second in Cy Young voting, and resurrected a career presumed wrecked at age 26 by pitching for six minor-league affiliates.
Now the Phillies hope he can become an effective lefthanded reliever.
A major-league source confirmed that Willis and the Phillies agreed to a one-year deal Tuesday, pending a physical. His base salary, first reported by ESPN.com, will be less than $1 million.
All of Willis' 13 appearances in 2011 with Cincinnati were starts, and he has started 202 of his 205 career games. But the source said Willis be a reliever for the Phillies.
In 2011, Willis posted a 5.00 ERA in 752/3 innings and walked 4.4 per nine innings. The Phillies apparently saw enough to believe he can provide value in the bullpen.
The answer probably lies in his ability to retire lefthanders.
His career numbers against lefties are outstanding, holding them to a career .200 average and .562 OPS against. In 2011, those numbers were even better, as lefties hit .127 with a .369 OPS against.
Control is what always held Willis back, but in the small sample size of 60 plate appearances against lefties in 2011, he struck out 20 with only two walks.
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said he wanted to add a lefthanded reliever at the winter meetings so that Antonio Bastardo was not the lone option. This way, if Willis can match up against lefties in the middle innings, Bastardo can assume his role as setup man.
The Phillies have not had a second reliable lefty since Scott Eyre in 2009. They re-signed J.C. Romero in 2011 only to release him in June. The financial commitment to Willis is small enough that if he is not productive, the Phillies can cut ties.
Another advantage: Theoretically, if the Phillies needed a spot starter to slide into the rotation because of injury, Willis presents that backup plan.
The Phillies have guaranteed contracts to three relievers - Jonathan Papelbon, Jose Contreras and Willis. Contreras' health is still in question, but he is scheduled to begin throwing in January. Kyle Kendrick was offered arbitration.
The remaining three jobs in the bullpen will be filled by a handful of young arms. Figure Bastardo as a lock. That leaves Mike Stutes, Justin De Fratus, Phillippe Aumont, David Herndon, Michael Schwimer and Joe Savery to fight for two spots.
Maybe Willis can assist the team before spring training even begins. He is a close friend of Jimmy Rollins, who remains unsigned and the Phillies' priority at shortstop. Both attended Encinal High in Alameda, Calif.
Amaro and Rollins' agent, Dan Lozano, have continued negotiations this week without resolution.
Extra bases. As expected, the Phillies tendered contracts to their four remaining arbitration-eligible players on Monday. Cole Hamels ($9.5 million) and Hunter Pence ($6.9 million) will receive substantial raises. The Phillies will explore a multi-year extension with Hamels later this winter. Kyle Kendrick earned $2.45 million in 2011 and his 2012 salary should climb above $3 million. Wilson Valdez is eligible for the first time and his salary could push $1 million. . . . Ryan Spilborghs, a player who has interested Phillies officials in the past, became a free agent when Colorado declined to offer him a contract. They are likely not alone in interest. Spilborghs will entice a bunch of teams as a power-hitting righthanded outfielder.