Tom Wilhelmsen is no longer closing games for the Mariners and might not do that job again this season. When the Mariners yanked Wilhelmsen from the job after last week’s meltdown in a mop-up situation in Boston, it represented more than merely giving him a rest. It demonstrated that the Mariners have lost confidence in his ability to close.
Otherwise, they’d have shrugged it off as Wilhelmsen being outside his “role” of coming into tight games rather than blowouts. They’s have looked back at his six consecutive saves prior to The Boston Collapse and shrugged this off as just one of those nights.
But they haven’t. And the reason is that, no matter how many saves Wilhelmsen has compiled already, he simply does not instill confidence in the team when he takes the mound. This blowing games thing has lingered for most of this season and a good part of last year’s second half as well. This is more about Wilhelmsen than it is about Danny Farquhar or Yoervis Medina. It’s about whether Wilhelmsen has the mindset to close games and shrug off setbacks. And right now, the team appears to be leaning towards a “No” vote on that and if that’s the case, then the team must give serious thought as to whether it wants him closing next year as well.
This fifth year of a rebuilding plan that likely won’t produce a .500 season this year — the two wins to finish off a 2-4 road trip notwithstanding — has been largely sacrificed on the altar of Wilhelmsen’s shortcomings. He isn’t the only reason the team has underperformed in terms of wins and losses, but he’s a huge part of it. And so, the team can’t simply shrug it off, declare that “2014 is a new year” and simply trot him back out there next year as if nothing happened in 2013.
Because if they’re wrong, this whole rinse, lather, repeat business will likely burn off the trust of even those fans willing to forgive another losing season this time in the name of some new faces and youth-driven hope.
Which leaves us with the question of what to do with Wilhelmsen. Right now, he looks like a piece that could be added to a winter trade. But if the Mariners hang on to him, I’d like to see them try something outside the box to help revive his stalled career.
I’d like to see them try to make Wilhelmsen a starting pitcher.
Now, believe me, I know that’s unconventional. Usually, it’s faltering starters who turn into relief pitchers and not the other way around.
But Wilhelmsen is no ordinary relief pitcher.
He’s a guy with two plus-pitches — a four-seam fastball that can reach the upper 90’s and a knee-buckling curveball among the best in baseball — who is trying to add an effective changeup to that already formidable repertoire. Wilhelmsen has already used the changeup in games, with varying degrees of success. This isn’t something new he’s experimenting with in bullpen sessions.
So, right there, you have the makings of a three-pitch repertoire that every starter needs.
And with two of those pitches already above average when Wilhelmsen’s command is on, he’s ahead of where many young pitchers just breaking into the big leagues are. Sure, he’d have to develop the changeup into a more trustworthy pitch. But he has the building blocks already in-place.
Remember, he has already used those three pitches against MLB hitters and gotten them out. Wilhelmsen was a very good closer earlier this season. His problem isn’t his “stuff” or his ability. It’s his command. And his inability to control things when in-game problems arise.
That suggests a mindset issue more than a physical one.
Interim manager Robby Thompson said just the other day that Wilhelmsen’s problem appears to be more of a confidence issue than anything else.
Despite what you may read in places, baseball people and pitchers who have actually tried closing games will tell you that it’s a different animal than working in any other inning. And if you lack confidence at it, or can’t shrug off defeat, or get mopey about your plight in life, then closing probably isn’t for you.
We’ll know soon enough whether it’s going to be for Wilhelmsen again.
But if it isn’t, he’s still got the pitches that could allow him to start and win games. Wilhelmsen just might be the kind of guy that needs a margin for error. The kind of guy that needs to be able to walk a guy or two early, then find a rhythm and shut teams down for six or seven more innings.
The Mariners already tried to make Wilhelmsen into a starter two years ago in the minors, but abandonned the idea both for need at the time — Brandon League was earning too much money to be kept beyond the 2012 trade deadline and the team needed an heir apparent — and the lack of progress by Wilhelmsen. But things have changed since, one of them being the transformation of his curveball into one of the better pitches in the majors today.
So, it may be worth it for the Mariners to go back and take another look. It would require plenty of co-operation from Wilhelmsen, who would have to train and strengthen his body entirely differently than he now does. It would require a completely different throwing regimen. It would require giving up the big league glamor life for a period of time and likely honing his skills in Class AAA or even winter ball for a stretch.
That latter part would require a great deal of commitment on the part of Wilhelmsen. A great deal of maturity as well. It would be too easy to give up and want to take the easy route back to the majors if things started to go wrong.
So, this might not be for him. That’s up to him and the Mariners to decide. They are already trying that approach in the minors with Chance Ruffin. The difference there is, Ruffin was never a big league regular. Wilhelmsen has already had a major taste of it.
But he might not have a choice if he keeps struggling like this late in games. Right now, he’s pitching like a below average middle reliever. Either that changes, or he’ll have to change jobs.
The Mariners aren’t exactly brimming with above-average, MLB-ready starting pitching prospects right now, despite all the “Big 3” hype. Danny Hultzen might not pitch in a AAA game again this year, James Paxton has been up-and-down and Taijuan Walker — the best of the bunch so far — just got knocked out early the other night.
Erasmo Ramirez is only now rounding back into form. Hector Noesi and Blake Beavan both struggled in different roles in the majors.
In other words, there is plenty of room in-the-mix for Wilhelmsen to become a starter. He offers the added bonus of being older and — hopefully — more mature and seasoned than your average minor league prospect, despite his recent setbacks. That age also comes without the wear and tear on a late-20s arm that one might expect, given that he spent six years away from baseball.
Anyhow, like I said, it’s up to the Mariners and up to Wilhelmsen. Maybe they still want him to close and perhaps it’s the only job he truly envisions for himself.
Regardless, both pitcher and team have to figure something out because it hasn’t worked for either of them this year.
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