DETROIT -- Alex Wilson has filled virtually every role possible in the Tigers' bullpen over the last few years, from part-time closer in 2015 and then on to long reliever to spot starter to setup man. As the Tigers embark on their rebuild, the versatile right-hander will spend Spring Training
DETROIT -- Alex Wilson has filled virtually every role possible in the Tigers' bullpen over the last few years, from part-time closer in 2015 and then on to long reliever to spot starter to setup man. As the Tigers embark on their rebuild, the versatile right-hander will spend Spring Training trying to crack the rotation.
It's his choice, and an interesting one after establishing himself as one of the few veteran relievers in a Tigers bullpen in flux. But as Wilson pointed out at TigerFest, it doesn't rule him out from breaking camp back in that same relief role.
And with the Tigers looking for starting pitchers to create competition in camp, Wilson took it as a challenge.
"I think in their eyes, and in mine, I have nothing to lose," Wilson said. "If I win this spot, it's only a bonus. And if I don't, well, guess what? I go back to throwing the seventh and eighth inning like I always have the last couple years, and no harm, no foul."
Wilson came up as a starter in the Red Sox farm system. He didn't make a relief appearance until he was put in the bullpen at Triple-A Pawtucket in 2012. From there, his workload began to build until he came to Detroit in the Rick Porcello-Yoenis Cespedes trade after the 2014 season.
Wilson's 66 appearances out of the Tigers' bullpen last year marked a career high, though he pitched fewer than 70 innings for the first time since 2014. He went 2-5 with a 4.50 ERA in 2017, while allowing 67 hits over 60 innings. His 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings marked his highest rate since 2013, but so was his ratio of 10.1 hits per nine innings.
He has some ideas on what happened with the latter.
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"I noticed last year, especially certain teams, certain guys would sit cutter or sinker, and they would just wait until I threw one or the other," Wilson said. "Whether I did it or not is one thing, but I definitely noticed a trend in that, because I was pretty much a two-pitch guy."
Wilson's changeup, a pitch he threw as a starter and a long reliever, has withered the last couple years. He threw it about 5 percent of the time with the Red Sox, but the last couple years, it has comprised less than 1 percent of his pitches, according to FanGraphs.
Wilson wants to find it again. If he can work on all his pitches stretching out as a starter in camp, that could help him in the bullpen if he ends up back there on Opening Day.
But for his part, there's also a skill set involved. If Wilson can pitch efficiently, he believes that could be a bigger benefit as a starter, especially as the Tigers try to get more innings from their rotation and ease the daily wear and tear on their relief corps.
"I'm not going to say I'm a guy that everybody looks at and says he's got plus stuff. What I am is a guy that's super-consistent over the last four or five years of my career, lots of quick outs, and when things are going right, I keep the ball on the ground," Wilson said. "As a starter, I don't need to punch out a bunch of guys. As a reliever, every now and then you have to look for that strikeout. If I can fly through five innings in 60 pitches, it's going to benefit everybody."
Wilson's 2017 season ended in mid-September with a fractured fibula after he was hit by a line drive. He recovered quickly, but the thought was already in mind to giving starting pitching a chance. He and his agent talked with the Tigers about it the day after the World Series.
The Tigers knew they wanted to provide depth and competition in camp for their starters in camp. But they also knew their lack of experience in the bullpen beyond Wilson and closer Shane Greene.
Still, manager Ron Gardenhire seems initially open to it.
"That's why we have to get to Spring Training," Gardenhire said. "We'll go through it with the coaching staff and [general manager] Al [Avila] and everybody and work all these things out. I have no problem with somebody wanting to do something and feeling confident they can do that. I have no problem with that. It's just what's going to be best for the team and what's going to be best for him. We'll have those discussions once I get down to Spring Training and we'll set it in motion, talk with everybody involved and get him there and see where we go with it."
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast.