Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | June 2, 2010

Willis to Arizona for Buckner

On Tuesday evening the Detroit Tigers traded Dontrelle Willis, who had been designated for assignment a few days ago, to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Right Handed pitcher Billy Buckner. The Tigers have indicated that the 26 year-old Buckner will begin his time with the Tigers organization at AAA Toledo, while the Diamondbacks will immediately insert Willis into their rotation. The Tigers will pay all of the money remaining on Willis contract (which expires after this season) except for the pro-rated Major League minimum.

The trade works out well for both sides, or at least as well as a trade of this magnitude (or lack thereof) can work. The Diamondbacks have had massive pitching issues in their rotation and can use anything that even resembles help. Their rotation is 13th in the National League in average game score and 14th in percentage of starts that ended as quality starts. Their starters have an ERA of 5.11 (and relievers have a 7.70 ERA in 136 2/3 innings) and an opponent’s OPS+ of 122. Dontrelle Willis is not a good pitcher, but may present an improvement to a Diamondbacks team that is exhausted of options.

Buckner was certainly part of the problem and not the solution for the Diamondbacks in the aforementioned numbers. A second round draft pick of the Royals in 2004, Buckner made it to the big club briefly in 2007 before being traded in that off-season for Alberto Callaspo. Since 2008 he has routinely split time between Arizona and their AAA team in Reno, spending more time at AAA than in the Major Leagues. In 2010 he has made three starts with the Diamondbacks and after the first one on May 18th was a moderate success (5 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 4 K, 1 BB, 2 HBP), his next two were both disasters that saw him give up 24 base runners, 14 earned runs, and 4 home runs in eight innings.

While Buckner is still at an age where it is too early to give up on him completely, it is becoming increasingly apparent that he is a AAAA pitcher. 2010 is now his fourth dip of the toe into the water that is Major League Baseball, and the only one of his call-ups to date that was even remotely successful was the 2008 call-up when he was used exclusively in relief. While he has a decent strikeout rate both in his career and in this season as well as a good walk rate and the ability to induce ground balls at an above average rate, Buckner’s Achilles heel in the Majors has simply been that he gets hit very hard. He gives up an incredible number of line drives and while he is above average in forcing ground balls, on those occasions where he actually does give up a fly ball it ends up being a home run far too often. These problems have not plagued him in AAA but continue to follow him to the Majors, even in his quasi-successful 2008 campaign. Combine these things with his reduced velocity thus far this season and there’s no reason to get too excited about Buckner.

However, for the Tigers this deal works out because they too have a rotation where their fifth starter position is really up in the air, currently being filled by Armando Galarraga. While Buckner has not been good in the Major Leagues and has been particularly awful in 2010, it is not unreasonable to believe that if there is an injury or severe case of non-performance on the Tigers roster during the year (particularly before the trade deadline) that Buckner could be a legitimate option to step in temporarily. His ceiling is not high and it is fully possible that he never pitches in Detroit, but considering what the Tigers gave up to acquire him, Buckner is a decent acquisition. It is interesting to note that the Tigers received a more viable pitcher for Dontrelle Willis than they did for Nate Robertson, which is a bit surprising. This may speak more to the desperation of the Diamondbacks in this case as opposed to the Marlins when they traded Jay Voss (5.64 ERA at AA Erie) for Robertson.

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