Trading Willis Is No Holiday

By Israel Gutierrez
Updated: May 28, 2007
MIAMI — They say Memorial Day in baseball is the unofficial day when pennant races can be acknowledged.

It’s OK, therefore, for Yankees fans to begin freaking out because their team is 12 1/2 games behind the Red Sox in the American League East, and it’s just as OK for Red Sox fans to begin freaking out because they’re only 12 1/2 games ahead of the Yankees.

For fans of the budget-conscious, World-Series-or-bust Marlins, they might be breaking out in an unofficial nervous sweat for a different but unfortunately familiar reason.

It’s Memorial Day and, after getting swept by the National League East-leading Mets on Sunday, the Marlins aren’t in a race to speak of. And if they remain in this gray area where reaching .500 is more of a goal than catching the wild-card-leading Braves, then it won’t be long before a sore subject becomes a reality once again: trading away their best players.

It should be no surprise that the first name off the lips of baseball experts when it comes to the subject of forecasting soon-to-be available pitchers happens to be the best pitcher in Marlins history.

Even with his slightly inflated 4.80 ERA, Dontrelle Willis is a quality left-handed starting pitcher, which is always a hot baseball commodity. Toss in the fact he almost won the Cy Young Award just two seasons ago and still has a lengthy career in front of him, and Willis could easily be the most sought-after player for contending teams come trade time.

It’s not as if trading Willis is a big secret, or even a touchy subject around the Marlins. Willis has jokingly yelled ”Don’t trade me!” when certain front-office members pass through the clubhouse. But it might not be much of a joke for long.


Through arbitration next offseason, Willis’ salary could reach as high as eight figures, assuming he brings down that ERA and finishes anywhere between the 12 victories he had last season and the 22 from two seasons ago. And a team that is remarkably still without a home won’t be willing to make that kind of payment.

For that matter, Miguel Cabrera likely will be facing the same kind of payday this offseason, but the thought of trading both franchise centerpieces is almost too much for any reasonable sports fan to handle this early in the season. It is just Memorial Day, after all.

There is a way to avoid the entire subject, however. It involves significant winning streaks, remarkable performances, career years and magical runs back into the playoff race.

It’s certainly not unprecedented. The Marlins did it last year. As faint as the hopes might sit after the Mets showed just how wide the gap is between them and the Marlins (New York had four starters out of the lineup because of injury or just rest, and Marlins starter Scott Olsen still was lauding the depth of the Mets lineup Sunday), the hole the fish has dug for itself is nowhere near as deep as last season’s.

Last year at this time, the Marlins stood at 17-33, having considered it an accomplishment to have partially recovered from a dismal 11-31 start. By the second week of September, the team was two games above .500 and the talk of baseball for having blitzed its way back into the playoff hunt.

Recoveries like that don’t happen all the time. Hardly ever, actually. Fortunately for this group of Marlins, the team is just four games below the break-even point and doesn’t require a historical run to be significant again.

First-year manager Fredi Gonzalez hasn’t seen the true potential of his group, but he does know what it takes to grab some momentum.

”Consistent pitching,” Gonzalez said. “That’s what momentum’s all about is your next day’s starter.”

So it doesn’t help that two of Gonzalez’s starters, Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco, have pitched a combined 21 1/3 innings (all from Nolasco).


And consistent pitching will be a lot harder for the Marlins to achieve if Willis is wearing a Mets uniform in August.

It might not be June, but it’s difficult for Marlins fans not to consider the possibility of losing the most unique face this franchise has seen.

If it’s a rallying cry the team is waiting for, maybe it’s time for a ”Do it for Dontrelle” campaign.

Because, unofficially, it’s not too early to start freaking out.