Left-handers, especially those thrown on baseball’s scrap heap before they turn 30, especially a former All-Star who once won 22 games, especially one who handles the bat well enough to be a pinch hitting option late in games, tempt general managers to sign them like a siren song.
The current baseball equivalent of an irresistible siren is Dontrelle Willis, recently released by the Philadelphia Phillies. Should Mike Rizzo listen to this song or put earplugs in and strap himself to the mast of the USS Nationals?
Some, including fellow District on Deck Staff Writer Michael Natelli, think Rizzo should give in and sign Willis to a low-risk, potentially high reward minor league contract. Let him try to re-learn his craft as a starter at AAA and Voila!, instant southpaw pitching depth, a rare commodity in most organizations. If he fails as a starter, he can try his hand as a situational lefty relief pitcher, the proverbial “Loogie.”
While all this sounds good, there are important, if more subtle reasons for the Nationals to pass on this supposed gift the Phillies have given them.
First, though many of the Nats’ pitching prospects are unlikely to advance to AAA this season, Alex Meyer being one possible exception, Willis still takes a roster spot from somebody who has paid his dues in the Washington organization. He will cost more than the typical minor leaguer to sign and will have an instant expectation to be called up to the big leagues if he performs well at all. The Nationals tried this route just a few years ago with Oliver Perez at the AA level. All he did was block other prospects.
The second, and more powerful reason to pass is one of perception. While devoted Nationals fans and the organization itself see a talented major league team ready to break out with a strong farm system adding depth, the rest of America and local sports fans, not ready to give their hearts to a club in a sport absent from the local scene for 33 years, remain indifferent or unconvinced.
These folks still view the Nationals as a losing organization that dumpster dives for failed, broken players, a hallmark of the Jim Bowden era. While many of these efforts turned out decently — Dmitri Young in 2007 is an example — most were colossal failures, like the Elijah Dukes debacle. Chasing after Willis will just reinforce in their minds that the Nats are back to their low-budget, chasing the wind ways. As much as the Nationals look ready to emerge from the shadows with a team competing for a playoff spot, they haven’t done that yet. Fans still await that first truly winning season.
Perceptions matter. Sure, Willis may find his lost magic for some other organization and the Nationals will have missed an opportunity. More likely, the Reds last year and the Phillies this year, organizations that boast playoff appearances and a World Series win in recent years, looked hard at Willis and found he had nothing left.
The Nationals should emulate these teams and pass on Willis. They will save money and let their loyal players know their commitment is valued and the team will no longer bring in mercenaries to take their jobs. Finally and most important, they will signal to their fans that their days of acting like a small-market, bottom feeding organization (which is absurd given their owners are billionaires and they play in a Top 10 media market) are, once and for all, over.