The Tigers promoted Willis on Tuesday from Class A Lakeland to Triple-A Toledo, putting him in line to start for the Mud Hens on Friday at Richmond. But while pointing out the progress that Willis has made in his summer quest to regain his command, Tigers officials cautioned that there's still no timetable for a return to the big leagues this season.
"We've told Dontrelle the same thing: My goal with him and our goal with him has been that we'd like him to be ready to be the big league pitcher that he's capable of being in 2009," Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "If it's before that, that's great. So let's see what happens.
"He threw strikes the last time out and the previous few times out. He's averaged around 90 [mph]. He's topped out higher than that. His arm strength is there. His breaking ball's been solid. We'll just wait and we'll take it turn by turn."
Though Willis has lost each of his last three starts, the 26-year-old left-hander has looked and pitched more like a veteran pitcher in that stretch after accepting an option to Lakeland in June. He lasted 7 1/3 innings in his most recnet start on Sunday, taking a 2-1 game into the eighth before giving up a leadoff homer and a walk that later scored. He scattered six hits with two walks and six strikeouts.
One start earlier, he gave up four runs on 10 hits in 6 1/3 innings, but didn't walk anyone while striking out six.
"He's worked very hard in all aspects -- conditioning and delivery-wise," Dombrowski said. "He's been great with the kids down there. The other thing that's happened with him is that he really has had a great sense of focus when he's gotten on the mound, which he's worked on, much more serious out there for him. Just little things that [instructors] have tried to make adjustments with him that so far he's taken to them."
He has made that progress while working with the Tigers' instructional staff with relatively little attention in Lakeland. That will change in Toledo. Beyond the level of play and caliber of hitters, Willis will be dealing with much more attention, a fact that manager Jim Leyland pointed out as a test.
"I think this is a real sensitive time," Leyland said. "He's obviously thrown pretty well, but I think this next step is critical because [reporters] will be down in Toledo watching him, to their credit. I'm sure there'll be some cameras down there from Detroit. It's another step. We have to just wait and see how it's handled.
"It's another step in the right direction, and we'll have to see how this step goes. From what I'm hearing, he's made some real good strides. Obviously that's true, or they wouldn't be sending him to Triple-A."
In the process, Willis will be filling a hole in the Mud Hens rotation. He'll take the rotation spot of Eddie Bonine, who left his start Sunday with an injured shoulder. Bonine, a Tigers starter in June and July, is scheduled to visit with the Tigers medical staff in Detroit on Wednesday, but is expected to miss the rest of the Minor League season.
Willis finished his Lakeland stint with an 0-3 record and 4.50 ERA in six outings, five of them starts. He gave up 30 hits over 28 innings with 11 walks and 18 strikeouts. He made three rehab starts for the Mud Hens in April while trying to work his way back from a hyperextended right knee, posting a 1-1 record with a 4.41 ERA with 16 hits and seven walks allowed over 16 1/3 innings.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.