Dontrelle Willis.jpgIt’s almost as if the Tigers are afraid to talk about Dontrelle Willis, today’s starter against the Blue Jays in Lakeland. Maybe not to talk about him but rather carefully measure what they say about him.

Despite amassing some solid if unspectacular numbers this spring — 1-0, 0.82 ERA, 11.0 IP, 7 H, 5 BB, 7 K, heading into today — depending on what you read, Willis is in line for a rotation spot or a pink slip.

Let’s follow the bouncing ball and see where we end up:

Tom Gage of the Detroit News indicated last Friday that Wilis was “still in the running for a starting spot on the Tigers — because he threw three more scoreless innings … in a 5-4 victory over the Astros (on March 18).”

And here’s more positive thinking, this from Jayson Stark who posted on Twitter:

Great story unfolding in Lakeland. Dontrelle Willis spins 3 hitless innings today vs Hou. Now positioned to take spot in #Tigers rotation

And the Free Press’ John Lowe wrote:

More important, Willis is throwing balls over the plate and inducing outs. On Thursday, he struck out two, though he was quick to point out he isn’t trying to strike anyone out.

Slow down, cowboy, writes the News’ Lynn Henning.

He may be getting hitters out but it’s essentially smoke and mirrors: Willis has shown better control during his Grapefruit League stints. But he no longer has the fastball, or the repertoire, that’s fundamental to beating big-league teams. He can get the ball over the plate. But he isn’t fooling any hitters.

Then, on Tuesday, Gage again focused on the positive:

Last time, Dontrelle Willis didn’t throw anything harder than 89 miles an hour. But in his one inning of relief Monday, he didn’t throw anything slower than 90.

Last week Rob Neyer shared Henning’s doubts:

In 10 innings, Willis has struck out six batters, walked five, and plunked two. On a happier note, he hasn’t thrown any wild pitches (yet).

Willis is now a candidate for the rotation because he’s got a 0.90 ERA. But if ERA over 10 innings matters, why not send Justin Verlander back to Toledo right now? He’s got a 6.10 ERA!

Sports Illustrated‘s Jon Heyman yesterday wrote on SI.com about Willis’ tentative position with the club. For me, these are the key passages of the article:

But folks around here, including Willis himself, are crazily cautious. The praise still seems feint, even if it isn’t intended to be. One comment heard repeatedly has been, “He’s had a very good statistical spring.”

— snip —

Nobody will talk today about any changes he has made in his delivery, as if the slightest whisper might throw him off again. Instead, they seem to have accepted the wild windup but have emphasized mechanical “check marks.”

Okay. So the Tigers are figuring out whether they should award a rotation spot to a man whom they have to watch what they say and what they do in terms of coaching?

And back to Henning:

I believe … that Willis will be released and Bonine will make the team as a long reliever.

There is no indication from the Tigers that any such move is likely. But it appears from how the pitchers have performed during the past three weeks that Willis is not throwing with enough zip or command to be a serious factor in Leyland’s 2010 rotation.

From the human perspective, it’s a grueling decision. But from a baseball perspective, it’s a no brainer.

And it’s a shame. At just 27, Dontrelle Willis should be at the top of his game and transitioning nicely into the role of undisputed Tigers fan-favorite, capably replacing Curtis Granderson.

Instead, he’ll likely wind up in Triple-A somewhere looking for a chance to resurrect his career with a low-expectations team like the Nationals, Pirates or Padres.

What do you think? Will Dontrelle Willis have a spot in the Tigers rotation on Opening Day? Weigh in on our latest Fungo Pulse Check in the sidebar –>