Tigers reliever Alex Wilson knows he can make impact

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Fans have said it all winter.

When are the Tigers going to address the bullpen?

But, while it's true Detroit has passed on the big names like Andrew Miller and David Robertson, few teams have been as active in the relief market as the Tigers this offseason.

Dave Dombrowski, Tigers president and general manager, brought back Joakim Soria and Joel Hanrahan; signed Tom Gorzelanny, Josh Zeid, Omar Duran, Alberto Cabrera; and traded for Alfredo Simon, who tentatively is slotted into the rotation but could be best used in a relief role if Detroit finds another starter.

Few of the additions, however, are as intriguing as Alex Wilson, who might've been an under-the-radar pickup from the Red Sox in December — with fans, understandably, much more excited about the headliner in that package for Rick Porcello, slugger Yoenis Cespedes.

Wilson, though, has a big arm, a big repertoire, and is coming off an impressive season in Boston.

"I'm absolutely ready to get started. A new chapter," Wilson said Tuesday from Texas, ahead of a Wednesday flight to Detroit for the Tigers caravan and TigerFest. "I'm excited about everything."

The Tigers' bullpen woes in recent years are legendary. The most crushing moment was Game 2 of the 2013 American League Championship Series, but the truth is, Detroit's relief corps has been among the worst in the American League since 2007 — right up through last fall's awful showing in being swept from the playoffs.

Wilson, 28, knows the situation. He's read the papers. He's followed the rest of the league.

And while he respects the likes of Joe Nathan and Soria and other veterans — and is looking forward to the opportunity to watch them and learn from them — he knows moving from Boston to Detroit gives him a golden opportunity to stick in The Show.

"Just by paying attention to all the teams throughout the league, it seemed as if that was one of the main focuses on why the team just couldn't tie things together from beginning to the end," Wilson said. "For me being a reliever, that's an exciting opportunity.

"All you can ask for is an opportunity, and the rest is just up to me."

The Tigers are likely to carry a seven-man bullpen, potentially eight in the early weeks when off-days mean they only need a four-man rotation. Under that scenario, Simon likely will shift for a bit. Then there's Nathan, Soria, Al Alburquerque, Bruce Rondon (if healthy) and Gorzelanny. That leaves two spots open, likely one for a left-hander and one for a right-hander.

Wilson, it would seem, would have the inside track for the righty gig, given the numbers he posted in 18 games out of the Red Sox bullpen in 2014: 1.91 ERA, 0.882 WHIP, 20 hits and five walks in 28.1 innings.

That was a nice bounceback from a 2013 season that ended up him trying to pitch through what he calls a blown-out thumb, which doctor attributed to his always tucking the thumb under the ball. Wilson said he does that because of his small hands. He had surgery in October 2013 and forever will pitch with a screw in there. Wilson came back last spring and the cold weather made it tough to get his feel back, but by the time things warmed up, so did his game — earning him a callup, and rave reviews from Red Sox brass.

The biggest adjustment was throwing the cutter again. He ditched it down the stretch in 2013 because of the thumb issues, and struggled to go to it early last year. But eventually, he did, and the results were impressive.

"I am a fastball guy, I love to pitch off my fastball," Wilson said. "Most scouting reports reflect that if I'm able to just put a little bit of movement on a pitch that looks much like my No. 1 go-to pitch, I find out I'm getting a lot of early swings and some quick groundball outs. That's huge."

Wilson also throws the four-seam and two-seam fastball, usually sitting between 92 and 94 mph. He's also got a slider.

And while you won't find it on every scouting report, he mentions a change-up, too. He acknowledges that's his No. 4 pitch, but likes to have it in the bag, especially when he's facing some left-handed hitters. The ability to get lefties out is huge for a right-handed reliever. He means they're not just a situational reliever.

"There's games I've thrown it a good number of times," Wilson said. "And then I might go three weeks without throwing one of them. It's a situational pitch for me, and I'm comfortable throwing it."

Wilson was a second-round draft pick in 2009 by the Red Sox out of Texas A&M, where he transferred to from Winthrop. He was drafted the year before, too, by the Cubs in the 10th round, but decided to stay in school.

Here's an interesting nugget, too: Wilson is just one of two major-league players to be born in Saudi Arabia (Craig Stansberry was the other). Wilson was born in Dhahran in 1986 because his dad was working there as a geologist. Wilson only lived through for a year-and-a-half before moving to the United States. In fact, he moved around a lot growing up.

So he's used to new surroundings. That's what he'll have in Detroit, where he knows a couple guys — he is friends with Hanrahan from their Boston days and said Hanrahan "sounds positive" and "ready to get back out there" after 2013 Tommy John surgery, and he shares an agent with backup catcher James McCann.

"In pro ball, this is my first big move," said Wilson, who has managed to keep up a heavy throwing program this winter, even throwing twice off the mound Tuesday, despite the addition of daughter, Rosie, on Dec. 2. Wilson and wife Kristin also have a son, Jhett, 18 months. "There are a couple familiar names, not a whole bunch of people. I'm just ready.

"If I can come in and do what I've done the last couple years, I have a really good chance to help this club out."