PEORIA, Ariz. — Tom Wilhelmsen knows that with less than a week remaining before the Seattle Mariners must set their 25-man opening-day roster, it’s difficult not to look too far ahead.
This has been a stellar spring training for the 27-year-old right-hander who’s competing for a bullpen rol
e. He has a 2.57 earned run average in seven exhibition innings and has been one of the intriguing stories of camp.
That success aside, Wilhelmsen knows it doesn’t guarantee him anything.
Aside from 10 games last year in the Arizona Fall League, he has never pitched above the Class A level (including three games last year with the Everett AquaSox). That’ often reason enough for a ticket back to the minor leagues no matter how well a guy throws in spring training.
This year, with the Mariners unsure about the final spots in their bullpen and with roster considerations that will affect their decisions, Wilhelmsen has remained in the big-league camp until the final week.
“I’m just working on what I can control and if I do that, then I’ll put myself in a good spot,” Wilhelmsen said.
Until the past month, Wilhelmsen has been known as much for his journey in, out and back into baseball as for what he’s now doing on the mound.
He was a prospect in the Brewers system eight years ago before he failed a drug test and was suspended. His desire waning, Wilhelmsen got out of pro ball from 2005-2008 and spent time traveling and bartending.
In the meantime, he got married and decided to get serious again with his greatest talent –throwing a baseball. He pitched 11 games with the independent league Tucson Toros in 2009 and, early in 2010, got a tryout with the Mariners.
The connection there was Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, who was the Brewers’ scouting director when they drafted him in the seventh round in 2002. Wilhelmsen was still dealing with nerve damage in his arm, suffered the previous summer in Tucson, but the Mariners signed him to a low-risk minor-league deal.
He pitched at three minor league levels last year — rookie Peoria, Class A Everett and Class A Clinton — then pitched 10 games for the Peoria Javelinas in the stiffer competition of the Arizona Fall League. Over the winter, the Mariners put him on the 40-man big-league roster.
And now he’s here, remaining in the major league camp long after other more experienced pitchers have been sent down.
“He’s been throwing the ball well,” manager Eric Wedge said. “We still want him, like a lot of our guys, to work ahead and stay ahead (in the ball-strike count) better. He has a live arm and his secondary stuff is real good.”
A few things are working in Wilhelmsen’s favor in his quest to make the team.
He is on the 40-man roster, which is a precious thing in this camp. With the likelihood that four or more non-roster invitees could make the team, anyone on the roster who’s pitching well will be considered.
Wilhelmsen, though, says he looks ahead only to his next outing and tries his best not to think where he’ll be a week from now. He could be getting ready for the Mariners’ opener at Oakland, or he could remain in Peoria preparing for the minor-league season.
“I try not to think ahead too much,” Wilhelmsen said. “I can’t control their minds.”
On Tuesday, Wilhelmsen struck out the side in the eighth inning against the White Sox, fanning Brent Morel, Omar Vizquel and Brent Lillibridge. Impressive as that was, the red flag is that he fell behind each hitter 2-0 before coming back. That won’t work in the big leagues.
“Because I’m not a set-in-stone spot, I’ve got to start making pitches,” Wilhelmsen said. “You never ever, ever like to get behind batters, but I was able to control myself and stay within myself and get the job done. I was able to mix some pitches, which I really wanted and needed to do.
“I feel like I’ve been getting by with fastball, fastball, fastball. That stuff flies in A-ball but it flies out of here. But I’m glad I was able to show some offspeed early and come back with the fastball late. Get that sinker down and then come up.”
Where that puts Wilhelmsen the morning of March 31, when the opening-day roster must be set, may not be known until the last minute. Compared with where Wilhelmsen was a year ago — having signed with the Mariners after being out of pro ball for five years — it’s a major step forward no matter where he plays.
“This time last year I was injured,” he said. “I certainly wasn’t thinking last year at this time that I’d be here. I still had goals, but this is just great. It’s just great.”
Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com/marinersblog and follow his Twitter updates on the team at @kirbyarnold.