Lakeland, Fla. – Tigers pitching coach Chris Bosio likes to have a Swiss Army knife in his bullpen. He likes a guy he can count on to perform a variety of jobs.
He thought Travis Wood would be that guy, until Wood blew out his knee in his first spring outing.
“Versatility in today’s game is huge,” Bosio said recently. “Losing Travis Wood was horrible because he could have filled five different roles for us. I would love a pitching staff full of guys like that.”
He’s still got one of those guys. Alex Wilson was taken out of the mix for the fifth rotation spot and put back into the bullpen, where he can be Bosio’s Swiss Army knife.
“They told me three days ago,” Wilson said. “He said, ‘We’re going to send you to the pen; we just need you out there.’ It is what it is. You will see me still extended out (pitch-count wise) the rest of the spring.
“It sounds like, as of right now, I’ll be that jack-of-all-trades role you’ve seen me at in the past, rather than just having a set role.”
Wilson was the Tigers’ late-inning set-up man last season. But in 2015 and 2016, he pitched, literally, in every situation – early, late, long and short. He even made a spot start. In 2015, he pitched in every inning – one through 14.
“I honestly don’t mind it,” he said. “It allows me to be ready for every game. I’ve done it before, in multiple years…It might be easier for me to do everything because it keeps me ready. Would I prefer to pitch in the back end of games? Yeah.
“But if it means us winning a ball game, me coming in the fifth or whatever, I am all in on that. When it comes right down to it, it’s not about the role. It’s about winning and that’s what I am here to do. I just want to win. I went to help turn this team around.”
Because of his experience, because of his leadership and because of his solid track record as a reliever, it was hard to imagine the Tigers pulling Wilson out of the bullpen. But they honored his wishes and gave him three starts.
“I understood what we were looking at going into it,” Wilson said. “Having been one of three veteran relievers that were back and one of two with late-inning experience, I totally understand the reasoning behind it (moving him back to the bullpen).
“We’ll move forward. I was happy to get the chance to start. I allowed me to work on my pitches a little more in-depth than I normally would have. It helped me, one hundred percent. I am back to using all four pitches.”
Last year was the worst of Wilson’s three with the Tigers. He fought through a battery of mechanical issues, never really finding his form. He also developed skin cancer early in the season, which required constant treatment. Then, the ultimate indignity, he had his season end in September when a Joe Mauer line drive broke his leg.
In the two seasons before that, though, Wilson was as reliable and productive as any reliever the Tigers had. In 2015 and 2016, he pitched a combined 121 games, 143 innings, with a 2.58 ERA, a 1.126 WHIP and 3.5 WAR.
“To say I am not a starter isn’t super disappointing to me,” he said. “It was something I wanted to try. I’d never done it in the big leagues. And, you know, who knows what’s going to happen? I am stretched out to 60 pitches right now. If somebody goes down or tweaks a hamstring in the first inning, I could be the guy who gives us four or five innings.
“But I am back to my home base in the bullpen. There are a lot of young guys down there that are going to need a guy to lean on. And that’s a role I fully accept.”
While pulling Wilson makes the fight for the final starting spot a little more clear – barring injury, it’s down to Daniel Norris, Francisco Liriano and Ryan Carpenter fighting for one spot – it crowds the bullpen fight.
Wilson will join closer Shane Greene, lefty Daniel Stumpf and right-handers Drew VerHagen, Warwick Saupold and Joe Jimenez as presumed safe bets to make the Opening Day roster.
That leaves right-handers Johnny Barbato, Buck Farmer, Mark Montgomery, Kevin Comer and Enrique Burgos, plus left-handers Chad Bell and Blaine Hardy battling for one spot – assuming the Tigers bring the usual complement of seven relievers.
Hardy, who is battling through shoulder impingement, threw his first bullpen on Saturday. He has yet to throw in a spring game.
Either Norris or Liriano, whichever one doesn’t get the final rotation spot, could also come north as a reliever. Carpenter would likely start the year in the rotation at Triple-A Toledo.