2011 Player Development: Tom Wilhelmsen

In this series, SeattleClubhouse takes a look at prospects that made big improvements in 2011 for the Mariners. This post covers perhaps the least likely big league contributor on the list: bartender turned reliever Tom Wilhelmsen.

There might be a movie made about Mariners rookie right-handed reliever Tom Wilhelmsen one day. He'll probably need to experience a little bit more on-the-field success before it can be a blockbuster, but the rags to riches aspect of the storyline is already in place.

I'm sure you know the story, but here is the abbreviated version: A seventh round draft selection in 2002 by the Milwaukee Brewers, Wilhelmsen enjoyed a great start to his pro career in 2003 but he was suspended for the entire 2004 season after testing positive for marijuana twice during that rookie season. Following the suspension that season, he was out of baseball--bartending, playing co-ed softball and backpacking around the world--until 2009 when he threw in 11 games for the nine team Independent Golden Baseball League. His agent called up Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik, who knew Wilhelmsen from his days in Milwaukee, and asked him to consider a tryout. Jack agreed, and the club signed him from that tryout.

"Now he wants to play baseball, and I think he'll tell you he lost that desire," earlier in his career, says Zduriencik. He pitched great for the M's at three levels last season (2.19 ERA, 0.95 WHIP. 8.9 SO/9) and earned a spot on the 40-man roster and an invite to Spring Training this season (where he was now famously "biking to work" many days). Still, him making the big league club was hardly a lock. But he racked up 11 strikeouts in 11 innings during nine big league games and impressed the coaching staff not only with his fastball-curveball combo, but with his poise on the mound.

But the feel-good story doesn't simply end there. Wilhelmsen certainly had some early struggles, and those struggles ultimately led to his demotion to Double-A Jackson, where he was stretched out as a starting pitcher. But a 5.49 ERA and 1.52 WHIP in 60 2/3 innings down in the minors didn't exactly give a ringing endorsement to his readiness when he was called back up at the end of July. But in his 17 big league games after that recall, Wilhelmsen posted a 2.35 ERA and a brilliant 0.78 WHIP while allowing opposing hitters just a .477 OPS in 23 innings. Perhaps most importantly to his success in his second stint, he walked just 4 while striking out 22 over that time.

Before he was sent to the minors, Wilhelmsen was throwing just 56.1% strikes, but he threw a hair under 70% after he was brought back up. Not coincidentally, he struck out exactly one-quarter of the batters he faced over that time, relying heavily on his fastball--which held an average velocity of 95.2 on the season and routinely hit 97 and 98 late in the year--and command. The results showed in other places, too. For instance, he allowed just a 12.5% line drive rate over those final 17 games and surrendered just one home run.

His performance did not go unnoticed by Manager Eric Wedge as the skipper frequently called on Wilhelmsen late in tight games during September. That said, he does still have room for improvement. He did allow five of his six inherited runners to score during his late season run of success.

Though there was some question at the beginning of 2011, it now seems clear that the long-term home will be in the bullpen for Wilhelmsen, and there is no reason to think that the bartender-turned-reliever won't be in the mix for a 7th or 8th inning role for the big league club in 2012.

The movie should be out shortly thereafter.

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