Much like the Nate Robertson trade to Florida at the end of Spring Training, the deal nets the Tigers something for a pitcher who was knocked out of Detroit's rotation. The Tigers designated Willis for assignment Sunday morning.
Detroit had 10 days to either trade Willis or release him, given that Willis wasn't going to accept an assignment to the Minor Leagues. Not only did the Tigers need fewer than 72 hours to move him, they found interest from several teams in the National League, where Willis won Rookie of the Year honors in 2003 and was a 22-game winner for Florida in '05.
"We talked with a couple of clubs about him," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said Tuesday in announcing the deal. "This is a good fit for him. I know he just bought a home in Arizona. I hope it works out very well for him. The other thing is, by moving him quickly, he's in a position where he doesn't have any downtime as far as not being able to pitch, so he's ready to step in."
Willis threw a side session at Triple-A Toledo on Tuesday under the watch of Mud Hens pitching coach A.J. Sager. The Tigers allowed him to work out there to keep his arm fresh, since he hadn't thrown since his final Detroit start Friday night.
The Tigers are expected to pick up nearly all of the $8 million or so Willis still has coming this season, the last year of the three-year, $29 million contract Willis signed soon after joining the Tigers in December 2007. The prorated minimum salary the D-backs would be obligated to pay works out to around $266,000.
That would've been the case, however, had the Tigers released him. In this case, they at least received a player for their trouble.
Buckner -- no relation to former big league first baseman Bill Buckner -- was a second-round pick of the Royals in 2004 and went to Arizona in the trade that sent Alberto Callaspo to Kansas City. He went into the year as the favorite for the fifth-starter's job in Arizona, but as in previous years, struggled with big league hitters. He went 3-1 with a 3.53 ERA at Triple-A Reno this year before being recalled two weeks ago. He has lost all three of his starts with the D-backs this year, giving up 26 hits over 13 innings -- including four home runs.
"He had a hard time the third time through the order and getting through the lineup." Arizona manager and former Tigers player A.J. Hinch said. "He didn't control his innigs pretty well in terms of the big inning. The long ball hurt him the extra base hits hurt him. He just had a hard time breaking through consistently. It's a difficult task for pitchers. They try to make an adjustment from Triple-A performer to solidifying Major League status."
He'll immediately slot in at Triple-A Toledo, where the Mud Hens were short a pitcher after Armando Galarraga was recalled to Detroit.
"He's been an up-and-down guy between Triple-A and the big leagues," Dombrowski said. "He's had three starts at the big league level this year. They have not been good. But he did very well for them at Triple-A. He's a guy that gives us some protection. He can start or relieve."
The 28-year-old Buckner was caught by surprise by the deal.
"Surprise," Buckner told reporters, "but I mean, I know this team is looking to make a lot of changes and this is one of them. I will just continue to work. Baseball goes on and so will I. It's a good thing, I guess."
It's a better situation for Willis, who gets the fresh start he needed after three rough seasons in Detroit. Willis' agent, Matt Sosnick, told MLB.com on Sunday night that his client could benefit from a change of scenery. Dombrowski, who spoke with Willis on Tuesday, agreed.
So did his teammates.
"I'm happy for him," reliever Eddie Bonine said. "It's a fresh start. Ironically, it's in Arizona, where he was planning on residing. It's crazy how all that stuff works. So hopefully he'll get comfortable and have that fresh start. Obviously, we all with him a lot of success."
Willis went 1-2 with a 4.98 ERA in eight starts and a relief appearance this year for the Tigers, walking 29 batters and striking out 33 over 43 1/3 innings. He made one start against the NL this year, giving up four runs over 5 1/3 innings against the Dodgers on May 21.
"It's a situation that works great for him," Dombrowski said. "I think that, all in all, it's been a tough situation for him on the field, but everybody's tried."
Willis could still make one more start in Detroit. The D-backs come to town for a three-game Interleague series from June 18-20 at Comerica Park.
"I wish him well all the other times," Dombrowski said, "but I hope we beat him."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.