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Tigers' Alex Wilson 'in limbo' as pandemic puts last stand on hold

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — When the shutdown came in early March, veteran reliever Alex Wilson packed up the RV he was living out of in Lakeland, Florida, and drove 18 hours back to his home in College Station, Texas.

That’s a lot of lonely miles for a 33-year-old relief pitcher at a career crossroads to contemplate his life.

A mainstay in the Tigers bullpen from 2015-18, Wilson spent most of the 2019 season in Triple-A with the Brewers and Cubs but was back in Tigers camp this spring as a non-roster invitee.

He knew coming in that it might be his last real chance to extend his big-league career. And then, with Wilson very much on the roster bubble and just two weeks left before Opening Day, the games stopped and he was told to go home.  

Alex Wilson is vying to make the Tigers' roster after spending the majority of last season in the minors.

He must've asked himself a lot of hard questions on that drive back to Texas. Like, are the baseball gods trying to tell me something? Is it time to hang 'em up? 

“When you have four kids and a family to take care of, how long can you really wait?” Wilson said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I know I can’t wait until next February.”

Wilson was in the process of adding a sidearm delivery to his repertoire this spring and though there were encouraging moments, the transition was going slowly. He’d alternate between solid and rocky outings and by the second week in March, it looked like Wilson might start the season at Triple-A Toledo.

And now there won't likely be a Triple-A season this summer.

“Basically, I am looking at options, what’s out there,” he said. “And I am overly qualified in just one area of my life and that’s baseball. Let’s see where baseball goes and go from there. But all this sitting around wishing and hoping and praying needs to come to fruition.”

If Major League Baseball and the players’ association can hammer out an agreement on health protocols and economic issues, and an 82-game season can commence by July 4, Wilson could be in a good position. Rosters are likely to expand to 30 with an additional 20 players on a taxi squad.

“Do I think it puts me in a good position? Absolutely,” he said. “But I still need to show up and pitch well. Do I feel I should be a shoo-in for the 50-man roster? I’d like to think so, and then from there I can earn my stripes like I’ve always done.”

But what if there are snags? What if teams aren’t allowed to start a second spring training by June 15? And what if the season can’t start in July? In that case, most likely, the 2020 season would be wiped out.

“I’ve had that conversation with my wife,” Wilson said. “If we don’t start by July, then it could be it for me. Being 33, I don’t know if anybody is going to give me another job if we wait all the way to next year. So let’s just get ready for this year.

“I got this sidearm thing to give my career a new lease on life, then it gets taken away. Now I am in limbo. Am I even going to get to use it, or is it on to the next phase of life?”

If it’s the former, Wilson will be ready to seize the opportunity. The coronavirus didn’t hit his part of Texas as hard as it hit other parts of the country, so he has been able to maintain an accelerated throwing program.

He’s been throwing to hitters for the past few weeks, including a 55-pitch live bullpen on Tuesday. With starting pitchers not likely to be fully stretched out, Wilson plans to come in ready to pitch multiple innings if needed.

“I didn’t do much the first month, just because there didn’t seem to be an end (to the pandemic) in sight,” Wilson said. “We needed to have some kind of target point, we need to be ready for spring training by June 15.

“We just figured if we got past that and the season gets pushed back through July, then we’re really at the point where we probably won’t play. So we put ourselves on that time frame and progressed from there like it was a normal offseason.”

The extra time, he said, has helped him fully incorporate the sidearm delivery with his normal over-the-top arm angle.

“It just feels a whole lot more natural now,” he said. “Now I am able to throw all my stuff over the top like I’ve done and I’ve become a lot more consistent in figuring out the mechanics of bouncing back and forth between the two arm angles.”

That was his issue in Lakeland. He’d get caught in-between, throwing pitches out of a three-quarter angle that either he couldn’t command or didn’t have the same action.

“I was getting frustrated,” he said. “Being able to get back home and slow down and really think about it and work through it again — that really helped me a lot. It was frustrating to leave (spring training) that way, but still, I felt like I took something good away each time I went out.

“I was basically trying to learn how to be a new pitcher in major league spring training and that usually doesn’t work out too well. I feel so much better now and I think when we do get back, I will show up in a much better place.”

But what if baseball doesn’t come back? Wilson and his wife, Kristin, have four kids ages 6, 5, 3, and 1. And though he’s earned $4.4 million in his seven big-league seasons, the $800 a month he’s getting as a non-roster player during the shutdown isn’t going to cut it.

He has a plan for that. He went back to Texas A&M last fall and finished a Bachelor of Science degree and began work on a master’s program in performance psychology. But if you thought the shutdown would’ve given him time to plow through his school work, you’ve never been quarantined in a house with four kids under 7 years old.

“There was no way I was going to do any school work,” he said, laughing. “It was impossible. I’ve stopped the Master’s program for the time being. I just couldn’t get alone in the house. I did one class (in March) and I was absolutely miserable.”

He said he and his wife started bickering at each other and he was losing patience and snapping at the kids.

“Finally, I was like, ‘I’m not doing this right now,’” he said. “We should be happy. We’re all home together for the first time ever. So I just took school off the plate and everything has been great since. It was the right decision for me.

“Do I see myself getting back to it (the master’s)? Maybe. But I want to see where baseball goes.”

Twitter: @cmccosky