While manager Jim Leyland said he saw some positives coming out of Willis' loss Sunday at Cleveland, from an improved slider to a better approach to left-handed hitters, Leyland also said that he'd like Willis to continue his work on his command when the season concludes. To that end, Leyland said he'll try to encourage Willis to pitch in one of the winter leagues this offseason.
The specifics would still have to be worked out, but Leyland said they wouldn't push it on Willis if the left-hander was reluctant to go. However, the skipper believes Willis could gain from the extra innings in a competitive setting, rather than simply throwing on the side in the winter. Plus, the Tigers could benefit from the extra time to watch Willis and figure out how he might fit into the organization's plans for 2009.
"I'm going to recommend it highly," Leyland said, "but I'm obviously not going to force the issue. Because I think it's important for any player that goes to winter ball, it's important that you go with the right approach."
That's an approach the Tigers are taking with several players that they've asked to consider winter ball. With Willis, it's particularly important, since he's a veteran.
The Tigers acquired Willis along with Miguel Cabrera in their trade with the Marlins at last December's Winter Meetings and soon signed Willis to a three-year, $29 million contract. His inaugural season as a Tiger has largely been defined by his pitch command, starting with seven walks over five-plus innings of one-hit ball in his Detroit debut on April 5. He missed close to two months with a hyperextended right knee, then was optioned to Class A Lakeland after giving up eight runs on just three hits over 1 1/3 innings to the Indians with five walks on June 9.
Willis made a series of starts at Lakeland and Triple-A Toledo over the next 2 1/2 months before rejoining the Tigers in September. He returned to a Major League mound on Sept. 15 with five innings of three-run ball in a no-decision at Texas, but took a loss at Cleveland on Sunday with six runs on five hits and six walks over 2 1/3 innings.
The Tigers have already asked others to spend at least some time in winter ball. That includes catcher Dusty Ryan, who has played regularly at catcher for the Tigers down the stretch.
"I think in his situation, the more he plays, and the more he plays against better competition, the more beneficial it is to him, both offensively and defensively," Leyland said Monday.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.