The Tigers activated the left-hander from the 15-day disabled list Wednesday, but manager Jim Leyland announced that Willis will not return to the rotation for now. Instead, he'll pitch in relief while the Tigers try to work on his pitching.
Armando Galarraga, who has been one of the Tigers' most effective starters since replacing Willis in the rotation, will remain there.
"We just want to keep him working, get some more innings in, get him fine-tuned a little bit, and then we'll play it from there," Leyland said of Willis.
The Tigers made the move just before Wednesday's game against the Mariners when lefty reliever Clay Rapada went onto the 15-day DL with biceps tendinitis. Unlike Rapada's role as a specialist, however, Willis is expected to work longer stretches to get him some innings and repetitions.
Willis had been on the DL since hyperextending his right knee in his second start as a Tiger on April 11 at Chicago. He made three rehab starts for Triple-A Toledo, most recently last Saturday. While his knee has apparently been fine, his control has gone in and out. That has been club officials' main concern after he walked nine batters in five-plus innings in his two Detroit starts.
"We'll pick our spots to get him work and try to move him along forward," Leyland said. "He's got a great approach, great attitude about it. He's ready to go."
If he irons out his issues, Willis will return to the rotation at some point. He signed a three-year, $29 million contract in the offseason to be a long-term member of Detroit's rotation. However, there's no timetable on moving him back there.
"Whatever they want to do, I'll do it," Willis said.
Said Leyland: "He's going to the bullpen to get straightened out. Period. We're going to try to get Dontrelle Willis ... back to the Dontrelle Willis that we know."
Galarraga has a 3-1 record and a 3.06 ERA in six starts since the Tigers purchased his contract from Triple-A Toledo last month. He has allowed just 21 hits over 35 1/3 innings, good for a .167 opposing batting average, with 14 walks and 24 strikeouts. With his ability to throw all of his pitches for strikes and challenge hitters, he has been surprisingly effective.
"I know when [Willis] gets better he'll be a starter in the rotation," Galarraga said, "so I don't want to try to do too much and just keep it rolling."
That's kind of the Tigers' idea, too. Galarraga's next start is scheduled for Friday night at home against Minnesota.
"At this moment with Galarraga, we have a little bit of a hot hand," Leyland said. "I think it makes sense. It does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that Willis is going to be in the bullpen by any sense. It just means that right now, the combination of Dontrelle needing to get some innings under his belt and continue to work some things out, and the fact that Galarraga has pitched very well, this is what we're going to do at this particular moment."
Rapada, who had emerged to complement lefty Bobby Seay in the Tigers bullpen since his April call-up, apparently called Tigers head athletic trainer Kevin Rand earlier Wednesday complaining of arm soreness coming off his outing Tuesday night, Leyland said. An examination at Comerica Park confirmed he needed to be shelved.
Rapada will rest for six days before he picks up a baseball again.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.