A day after the Tigers made it official that Willis will not be a September callup, Leyland went out of his way to praise the left-hander for his work through a challenging season. And while Leyland reiterated his belief that Willis could benefit from pitching this winter, he allowed for the possibility that Willis should take a step back, which seems much more likely.
Willis finished a difficult season with six innings of two-run ball last Saturday for Triple-A Toledo, finishing his Mud Hens stint with a 3-1 record and 4.45 ERA in six starts over two separate rehab stints. He walked 14 and struck out 20.
In between were seven starts with Detroit and two DL stints with an anxiety disorder, the second costing him the final 2 1/2 months of the season.
"I think it's been grueling on him," Leyland said. "I think he's been very cooperative. I think he's trying his tail off. I tip my hat to him. You feel bad for him."
As tough as it is, Leyland added he'd rather not see Willis stop now, even if it's just for the winter. He would like to see Willis continue to pitch this offseason, but said it's only his own opinion.
"He needs to go on the mound on a consistent basis at some point," Leyland said. "I don't know what his plan is. I have not talked to him. It's a tough one, because you don't know the process, how people are dealing with it. ...
"I mean, for his sake, let alone ours, he needs to see as many hitters as he can on a consistent basis on the mound. But once again, on the other side of that, people may say that's not true right now. Maybe he needs to get away from it. I don't know. So I've tried to stay out of it."
The most likely scenario is that Willis will take a step back. His agent, Matt Sosnick, said Wednesday that their plans are for Willis to return home to be with his family and start his offseason work, though he said that plan could change.
The wide range of Willis' performances was a microcosm of his season as a whole. He earned his first win with the Tigers May 19 with 6 1/3 scoreless innings of one-hit ball against Texas, but also walked eight Pirates over 3 2/3 innings four weeks later before he went on the DL. He finished the year with a 1-4 record and 7.49 ERA for Detroit.
Willis has one more year remaining on the three-year, $29 million contract, which he signed soon after the Tigers acquired him from Florida in December 2007.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.