'Where I want to be': Tigers bring back reliever Alex Wilson on minor-league deal
Detroit — The truth is, he never wanted to leave and the Tigers never really wanted to lose him.
So, after he spent most of last year in Triple-A for the Brewers and Cubs organizations, versatile right-handed reliever Alex Wilson is back.
"This is a good fit for me no matter who else called," Wilson said in a phone interview with the News Saturday. "Because this is where I want to be."
Wilson, now 33, and the Tigers agreed on a minor-league deal which includes an invitation to big-league camp next month.
"The opportunity is unlimited, in my opinion," he said. "Not only with my talents, but with the relationships that I've already created. Gardy and Rick (manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson) trust me and everybody else that's been around knows me.
"And the young guys and the new guys we sign, they're going to know me really fast. I am not exactly quiet."
Ironically, the deal Wilson agreed to Friday is exactly the deal the Tigers tried to get him to sign last offseason. But so much has changed since — with the club and with Wilson himself
"I stayed in contact with (assistant general manager) David Chadd throughout last year and I finally called him on Dec. 30 and laid it all out on the table," Wilson said. "I told him, 'Listen, this is where I want to be. This is where I'm at. This is what I'm doing.' I put all my cards on the table and said, 'What can you do?'"
Within 48 hours, Chadd came back with the deal and with general manager Al Avila's blessing.
"If this is my last year playing and if I have to take a minors deal, I'd rather be in Detroit," Wilson said. "I'd rather be there where I can help those young players out. Last year didn't go as planned and it opened my eyes."
Here's how it played out last year. After four productive workhorse seasons with the Tigers, Wilson was eligible for arbitration and projections were that he could get as much as $3 million.
The Tigers didn't let it get that far, designating both Wilson and catcher James McCann for assignment. After Wilson cleared waivers, the Tigers twice offered him a minor-league deal. He rejected them both and ended up briefly with the Indians before opening the season with the Milwaukee Brewers.
He lasted just 13 games, giving up 12 runs in 11 innings (six runs in one-third of an inning in one horrific outing), before being sent down to Triple-A San Antonio.
Wilson pitched well in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, going 4-1 with a 2.13 ERA and a 1.053 WHIP, striking out 31 in 38 innings. He allowed just nine earned runs — though he did give up eight home runs.
But on Aug. 3, the Brewers released him.
"I don't think I ever really lost anything," Wilson said. "I just happened to have the worst outing of my career in my seventh appearance at the big-league level. I gave up six runs in a-third of an inning and when you only throw 11 innings, that's going to skew your numbers.
"Then I went to San Antonio and had a two (ERA) in 40 innings and got released. So it's not like there was a rhyme or reason involved. Obviously it wasn't the right fit."
Wilson was upset that the Brewers didn't give him another shot and he ended up finishing out the year in the Cubs' organization, at Triple-A Iowa.
"At that point, I was like, 'OK, I'm going back to school.'" Wilson said. "I had all of September off so I took steps to get ready for the next part of my life."
So there he was last fall, back in College Station, Texas. Back, for the first time since he was drafted by the Red Sox in 2009, on the campus of Texas A&M, finishing up the one semester he had remaining to complete his Bachelor of Science degree.
"It only took me 13 years to finish," he joked. "But I finished."
He has applied for the master's degree program in performance psychology, which he would do online, taking one class per month for 15 months. By May of 2021, he'd be certified and ready for his second career.
But that, Wilson said, is the contingency plan.
"I feel like I have four or five years still in me," Wilson said. "I feel great physically. There are no issues. Mentally, I am in a great place, even though last year didn't work out the way I wanted it to.
"So when they presented me the offer, I accepted it immediately. And I'm happy about it. I have a chance to come back and if nothing else, help the young kids that I have relationships with already and be a presence for them."
Wilson has already mentored prospects Alex Faedo, Matt Manning and others, who will be in big-league camp next month.
"I fit that role perfectly," he said. "Not only can I do my job on the mound better than average, I can also help the young guys transition and learn and understand what's going on around them.
"They know I'm not going to tell somebody something I hadn't done myself or that I'm not willing to do myself. I'm really looking forward to it."
Wilson averaged more than 60 innings per year for the Tigers from 2015 through 2018. He threw more than 70 innings, in a variety of roles, in 2015 and 2016. He was a five-win player in his time in Detroit, posing an ERA of 3.20 and a 1.1 WHIP.
Besides closer Joe Jimenez, set-up man Buck Farmer and possibly Rule 5-draftee Rony Garcia, there are no other set pieces in the Tigers bullpen entering spring training. So there is an open lane for Wilson to re-establish himself.
"It's going to be weird coming back because I feel like I never wanted to leave," Wilson said. "But honestly, one of the reasons I want to be here is I think I can make a difference, on and off the field at the big-league level.
"Now I just have to make the darn team."