Four starts into the spring season, has Williams done enough to occupy a spot in the rotation?
"Not at this point in time," manager Cecil Cooper said. "Not for me. He's got to get after it. I need to see more."
Williams looked good in the very early stages of his outing against the Dodgers on Monday, but the final results looked all too familiar: four innings, nine hits, six runs (five earned), two walks, one strikeout.
Part of the blame lies with the defense. Ty Wigginton's throwing error in the second led to the Dodgers' first run, and Reggie Abercrombie lost a ball in the sun in the third which turned into a triple for Andre Ethier. But a shoddy defensive effort can only carry so much weight. Williams simply struggled to keep the ball down, and the Dodgers took full advantage.
"He wasn't as crisp as I would have liked," Cooper said. "He had a pretty good first couple of innings where he stayed ahead of the hitters. In the third, he started falling behind and got some balls up."
Williams yielded a leadoff homer to Rafael Furcal in that third frame, followed by Ethier's bloop triple, a walk to Mark Sweeney and a base hit to Delwyn Young.
"If he pitches down, for the most part, and uses his breaking ball, he has a chance to be all right and be effective," Cooper said. "Today, after the first couple innings, he started falling behind. He can't afford to do that."
Williams acknowledged that location indeed was an issue, but overall, he sounded pleased with how he pitched.
"I left a few pitches up, and struggled with holding onto the ball a little bit," he said. "Other than that, I threw some pretty good pitches. Other than a couple I left up that did get hit pretty good, other than that, all in all, pretty good."
Pretty good may not be enough. Williams' spring ERA is 13.89. He hasn't had a good outing since his first one, when he pitched two shutout frames against the Braves. Since then, he's allowed five runs over 2 2/3 innings versus Cleveland, eight runs over three innings versus Detroit, and although he was hoping to get through five innings at Dodgertown on Monday, he was lifted after four.
"Numbers-wise, you never want to have the numbers I have," Williams said. "If you look back the last eight or 10 years of my Spring Training, you're not going to see very impressive numbers. I'm a 'feel' pitcher and [with] my offspeed pitches, it takes a while to get comfortable and consistent with it. Every time I go out there, I get closer and closer."
Time, however, is running out. After Monday's game, Cooper said Williams will make his next start, likely this weekend in Kissimmee, Fla. Williams will probably make two more starts before the exhibition season is complete, and clearly, he's going to have to show his manager a lot more than he has so far.
Williams has another element in his favor, one that may be more significant than the money the team owes him. Judging by the spring numbers, the rest of the rotation is mediocre at best. Williams has done nothing to separate himself from the pack, but take a quick look at the abysmal ERAs piling up on the Astros' stat sheet. Is anyone really threatening to take Williams' job?
Several rotation candidates pitched themselves out of contention, but Williams has a longer leash than a Runelvys Hernandez or a Mark McLemore. He'll receive more chances to merit his standing with the club, but Cooper appears to be unafraid to express his observations as the spring season inches toward a close.
"I was hoping to see some giant [strides] today," Cooper said. "I've got to see some more strides, some more positive steps.
"Woody can't pitch up there [in the strike zone]. Nobody can, really, unless you're [Jose] Valverde throwing 98 [mph]. You might be able to get away with it. Big league hitters hit good fastballs and if you're up in the zone and out over the dish and it's not 98, guys catch up to that."