One of the better stories coming out of the end of Spring Training is that of Tom Wilhelmsen managing to beat the odds and make the Seattle Mariners 25-man roster as part of their bullpen. After spending five years completely out of baseball, Wilhelmsen signed with the Mariners in 2009 and spent just one year in the minors re-adjusting to the game before putting together a strong spring and forcing his way in to the major leagues.
Wilhelmsen has a rather colorful past, having been suspended by his original organization, the Milwaukee Brewers, in 2004 after testing positive for marijuana twice. Instead of serving out his suspension and coming back, Wilhelmsen decided to retire from the game altogether and spent the next several years traveling around the world, including serving a stint as a bartender in Tucson, Arizona.
In 2009, he finally decided that he was ready to pick up a baseball again, pitching in the independent leagues before getting a tryout and a contract from the Mariners. He spent 2010 with three teams in the low minors, topping out with the Clinton Lumberkings of the Midwest League (Low-A). He racked up a 7-1 record in 15 games (12 starts), with 73 strikeouts, 19 walks, and just 18 runs surrendered.
Wilhelmsen left a particular impression on the fans of the Everett AquaSox, even without ever making an appearance at Everett Memorial Stadium. He stayed at the park after one of his off-days to help run a postgame event, and during the club’s run to the Northwest League title, his screaming cry of “UNLEASH THE E!” greeted fans at the start of every game at the end of the year and during the playoffs.
The Mariners have indicated a desire to use Wilhelmsen as a starter in the past, but for the time being the 27-year old’s arsenal works best out of the bullpen. His two primary pitches, a mid-to-upper 90′s fastball and a low-to-mid 80′s curveball with some spike to it, play up well in the ‘pen, and he currently lacks a third pitch to keep left-handers off-balance. If and potentially when Wilhelmsen is sent back down to the minors this year, expect him to be stretched back out as a starter and told to focus on developing a changeup or other similar pitch.
Wilhelmsen made his major-league debut last night, getting the eighth inning and setting the Oakland A’s down in order, including striking out David DeJesus looking on a nice curveball. Wilhelmsen has also been made the bearer of an R2-D2 backback, continuing the M’s bullpen tradition of making the rookies carry around silly backpacks (fellow rookie Josh Leuke has apparently been given a Justin Bieber backpack).