Every club brings a few reclamation projects to spring training every year as non-roster invitees. Some of those guys don’t even make it through spring training camp, like former Detroit closer Matt Anderson with the Phillies this year. The Cincinnati Reds 2011 project is 29 year old Dontrelle Willis.

I dusted off an old prospect report on the D-Train from John Sickels, of MinorLeagueBall.com, The Baseball Prospect Book 2003.

He came to the Marlins as an anonymous Class A pitcher in the Matt Clement/Antonio Alfonseca deal, then quickly emerged as one of the best southpaw prospects in the game with an awesome 2002.

I didn’t recall that he was essentially a throw-in. After that A-level season, he was ranked #35 on the list of the book’s top 50 pitching prospects. Sickels went on to say…

His best attribute right now is his command: his control is phenomenal…Some scouts worry that his unusual delivery puts extra stress on his arm, so the Marlins must monitor his workload carefully…If his health holds up, Willis projects as a fine number two starter on the major league level.

Willis went from 197 innings in 32 starts as a 22-year old to 236 innings in 34 starts the next year. He would go on exceed 200 innings and make 34 or more starts in three straight seasons.

The D-train struggled at both the major league and minor league level the past four seasons. However, in Louisville this year, his number look quite a bit better. The Reds have adjusted his delivery, and Willis seems to have much better command. He has just 20 BB in 75.1ip to go along with 67 strikeouts. The 2.4bb/9 ratio is almost as strong as his minor league numbers when he was coming up from 2000-2003. In his 4 good years in Florida (2003-2006), he went on to post a 2.8 bb/9 ratio.

Fangraphs outlined Willis’ fall from grace on Friday:

After four straight seasons of 2.9 WAR or better, including a stellar 2005 season in which Willis threw 236 innings with a 2.63 ERA and a 2.99 FIP, Willis only managed a 5.17 ERA and a 5.13 FIP in 2007, and it was all downhill from there.

Downhill may be a bit of an understatement:

Willis has started 27 games in the major leagues since 2008 and has walked 119 batters against 82 strikeouts. That should be all one needs to know, and it should come as no surprised that his WAR over these 123.1 innings sits at -0.8.

It appears that a lot of his command is back, and I am cautiously optimistic that Willis has returned as a serviceable mid-rotation starter. We will get our first glimpse of that possibility today.

Year Level IP ERA WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 WP
2000-03 Minors 315.2 2.31 0.95 6.9 0.2 1.7 7.4 15
2003-06 Majors 817.1 3.44 1.30 8.9 0.7 2.8 6.7 17
2007-10 Majors 328.1 5.81 1.75 10.1 1.2 5.6 6.2 23
2008-10 Minors 100.1 4.67 1.53 9.2 0.8 4.5 6.1 6
2011 Minors 75.1 2.63 1.21 8.5 0.6 2.4 8.0 5