Lakeland, Fla. — It seemed like old times. Well, it seemed like 2018. There was Alex Wilson and Matthew Boyd on Tuesday, the day before the first official pitchers and catchers workouts commence, throwing to each other on the turf field behind Joker Marchant Stadium.
It seemed like a normal warm-up session. Just two veteran pitchers getting loose, showing each other what they’d been working on. And then Wilson started dropping his arm and throwing sidearm fastballs and sweeping sliders.
“I mixed in heaters from down there throughout the year last year,” said Wilson, who is back on a minor-league contract after spending last season pitching mostly in the Triple-A systems of Milwaukee and the Chicago Cubs. “But I’ve been doing that a little bit since college. I got away from it when I was here just because I was real consistent.
“But it’s tougher streets out there now.”
Wilson, a right-handed stalwart in the Tigers’ bullpen for four seasons, signed with the Brewers before last season. And he didn’t pitch poorly, certainly not as bad as the numbers show. He made 13 appearances early in the season for the Brewers. Twelve of them were OK. But he gave up six runs in one-third of an inning in the other and eventually was sent down.
He spent the rest of the year in Triple-A, going 4-1 with a 2.13 ERA and a 1.0 WHIP in San Antonio before finishing the year in Iowa. That he never got a second chance gnawed at him, so he asked a lot of questions and found out some hard answers.
Namely, his analytic profile was bad. Didn’t miss enough bats. Too many hard-hit balls. Right-handed hitters hit .282 on balls they put in play with 10 home runs against him. Thus, he’s working on adding a second arm slot to his arsenal.
“It’s more for righties than lefties, to be honest,” he said. “I think I can get some elevation (on his fastball) from down there, too. It’s a good tinker. We’ll try it out. If nothing else, I still got this (his regular delivery).”
Wilson said throwing from the side adds a few more pitches to his repertoire, with the sweeping slider and elevated four-seam fastball to go along with his sinker and his bread-and-butter cutter.
“As long as the velocity stays the same as it’s been this offseason, it could be good,” he said. “I’ve been throwing it just as hard from the side as from on top.”
The last four seasons, his fastball has averaged between 92-93 mph. His slider and cutter have averaged 86 mph, neither with much horizontal movement. Presumably, the slider from a sidearm delivery would be slower and have much more sweep to it.
“It’s just something to put in (hitters’) heads,” he said. “And if I hit a few guys with it, it can only help.”
The last was said as a joke. We think.
Timing everything for Bonifacio
It seemed like Dominican-born outfielder Jorge Bonifacio was going to be a big piece of the next wave of competitive baseball teams in Kansas City. He hit 17 home runs in 113 games his rookie season in 2017, slashing .255/.320/.432.
But here he is, three years later trying to win a job with the Tigers as a non-roster invitee.
“This is good for me,” he said. “I was in Kansas City my whole career. Now I’m here. They’ve given me an opportunity to be here in spring training and I am going to try to help them out.”
So what happened? First, in March of 2018, Bonifacio was suspended for 80 games for using the performance-enhancing drug boldenone — an injection commonly used to treat horses. He came back in late June but wasn’t the same player.
He hit just .225 with four home runs in 69 games, then was called up for only five games in 2019, spending most of the season in Triple-A (where he hit 20 home runs, but only batted .222).
“Let me say, I think I lost my timing a little bit,” said Bonifacio, who will be 27 on June 4. “It was hard for me, all the time off from the suspension. I just felt like I was trying to get it, trying to get it. Last year was a tough year for me, but this year I feel like I am getting back to being myself.
“I played winter ball and I felt like I’m there, the timing is back.”
That’s where the Tigers saw him, playing for Licey in the Dominican Winter League. In 31 games he slashed .330/.391/.548 with four home runs and a .938 OPS. They will give Bonifacio a good chance to win an outfield spot, possibly competing with Victor Reyes in right field, or as a right-handed hitting platoon option in left with Christin Stewart.
“I just have to do my job and try to be on this team,” he said. “I am going to play hard and do my best to win a job.”
Asked if he was disappointed in how it ended in Kansas City, Bonifacio paused and then shook his head.
“Not really,” he said. “I just feel like this is a business. I felt like they needed to give opportunities to other guys. I get it. Now I am here to do a job.”
The Tigers’ development staff brought soon-to-be 17-year-old prospect Roberto Campos to TigerTown in Lakeland for a few days back in December. The Cuban-born outfield prospect whom they signed for $2.85 million when he was still 15, has grown to 6-3 and he’s now over 200 pounds.
But, still very raw baseball-wise, the Tigers decided to let him stay in the Dominican Republic and play in the summer league there. He is expected to be in minor-league camp next year.
Despite not yet playing any professional baseball, Campos is ranked 26th on the Tigers’ prospect list by MLB Pipeline.