ANAHEIM, Calif. – There was a little intrigue on the lineup card in the Mariners' clubhouse Sunday morning as Tom Wilhelmsen's name was not listed as one of the available relievers. Couple this with catcher Mike Zunino telling me in a pregame interview the day before that he believed they were stretching him out and it had the appearance of Wilhelmsen perhaps being the starter for Tuesday's game. That idea was put to rest rather quickly by manager Lloyd McClendon in his pregame meeting with the media.
"I am still in discussions with that," he said of the decision on a Tuesday starter. "I'm not sure what we are going to do. Probably, in all likelihood, we will call somebody from Triple-A."
McClendon didn't completely eliminate Wilhelmsen as an option but acknowledged that with the bullpen being taxed the last two days, that would be much tougher to do than it was heading into the All-Star break. Wilhelmsen's previous start was a spot start, one that left McClendon intrigued about the possibility of having Wilhelmsen in that role going forward. After the game he said he liked the idea but that a conversion – if the organization chose to go in that direction – would not occur until the offseason.
Wilhelmsen as a starter once more – he was one for the majority of his minor-league career – has been an idea that has been tossed around from time to time since he arrived in the big leagues. Converting in the offseason makes sense as it would give him the opportunity to prepare physically for more innings. But I have to wonder, if you feel he could throw more this season, might he be of more benefit to the team in a starter role now?
It's an idea I was opposed to until today. I am in the camp that the Mariners could use another starter. I have questions about Roenis Elias in the second half, questions about his innings and recent performance. His last nine starts have not looked like his first 10. Then there is the matter of the fifth-starter spot. James Paxton is on turn to take that once it is determined he is ready coming off injury, but what if there is a need again? Finding that fifth starter when necessary has been anything but automatic this year. Depth is needed and Wilhelmsen might be able to provide that.
It's amazing how far Wilhelmsen has come after a disastrous 2013. I think it helps that McClendon put his faith in Wilhelmsen early. I saw a number of conversations on the field with him during spring training and found it interesting at the time that he was taking such interest in him.
While I think the manager deserves a tip of the cap here, most of the credit for the turnaround goes to Wilhelmsen himself. He adapted to his roles in the bullpen and also has continued to improve his array of pitches, something that McClendon and pitching coach Rick Waits wanted him to focus on. Rather than pare down the repertoire as most relievers do, Wilhelmsen was asked to continue to add to it. As a result, he has more of an arsenal now than when he was starting on a regular basis.
"He's got different stuff than he had then," Waits said before Wilhelmsen's start against the Twins. "It does help him get through the lineup more than once. Tom has shown this year he is good two, maybe three times."
Zunino, who has had the best view of the pitches over the last year, says the improvement has been eye opening.
"It's been unbelievable," he said of Wilhelmsen's progress. "The more he has thrown this year the more I have been impressed. He's continuing to develop those four pitches and now all four of them are really plus. He developed the changeup and the little bit of a cutter last year and it's been a good mix for him. He gets lefties out more now and now he has that slider to show righties. He's not afraid to show all four of them."
If there is thought that he could take on the extra innings this year, why wait until next year? One of the best reasons not to make the move this year was because of his value as a reliever. While a bullpen with Wilhelmsen is better than one without him, it would appear that Brandon Maurer is ready to take over a permanent spot there. We have seen him in a number of situations since rejoining the team as a reliever and he has handled them all more than ably.
Wilhelmsen has thrown outings of three innings or more four times this year and has thrown 54 and 51 pitches in his last two appearances. You may be able to get five innings out of him every five or six days for a stretch without too much trouble.
It wouldn't have to be for the long term, either. Maybe he just spells Elias a bit. Maybe Taijuan Walker shows what they are looking for – command and quicker outs in Triple-A – and returns for good. Maybe Wilhelmsen gives you what you need for a month or two and then returns to the bullpen for the stretch run, or better yet the postseason.
This is all dependent on what is a reasonable expectation physically from him, but if you feel he is sound and able to give you more innings, why not maximize that flexibility?
Is it possible the starter that general manager Jack Zduriencik has been looking for is already here?
• Second baseman Robinson Cano asked for and was given the game off after coming up with what McClendon described as tight legs. Twenty-eight innings in two days and not much of an All-Star break will do that to a guy who has had leg soreness earlier in the season.
• McClendon is working with a short bullpen today with Wilhelmsen and Danny Farquhar not available and Dominic Leone perhaps in the same boat. McClendon said that Farquhar was feeling a bit tender and that is not unusual coming out of the break. Guys get out of their routine for four days and often feel soreness or tightness soon after returning. Both the manager and player said that he could go if needed but that it would be better to give him a day.