PEORIA, Ariz.—The Mariners’ instructions for pitching prospect Tom Wilhelmsen’s time in the Arizona Fall League were quite simple. According to Javelinas pitching coach Kevin Walker, Seattle wants Wilhelmsen to just get him some innings. The request is not a surprising one considering that Wilhelmsen has spent less time in the minor leagues than nearly every other member of the Peoria pitching staff. At nearly 27, he’s also the oldest.
Wilhelmsen’s journey to the AFL has certainly been a circuitous adventure. The Tucson, Ariz., native was a seventh-round draft pick of the Brewers in 2002, signing for an above-slot $250,000 bonus that August. The Brewers gave the 6-foot-6, 220-pound righthander an aggressive assignment for his first pro experience in 2003, starting him in the low Class A Midwest League. He responded with a strong season by going 5-5, 2.76 in 15 starts and making the league all-star team.
But then his baseball career derailed. The free-spirited Wilhelmsen missed the entire 2004 season when he was twice suspended by the Brewers for testing positive for marijuana. In 2005, he decided he was done playing baseball and walked away from the game. For the next three-plus years he worked as a bartender at a college bar near the University of Arizona, and took the occasional backpacking trip to Europe, Hawaii, Mexico and spots around the western half of the United States.
Wilhelmsen married his high school sweetheart during this period. He also gave up smoking cigarettes, another sign that he was ready to move on with the next phase of his life.
“That was kind of a big step right there,” Wilhelmsen said. “I said, ‘If I can do this, what else can I do?’ I wasn’t sure I wanted to bartend for too much longer. I didn’t want to come home at 4 in the morning if I was planning on having kids . . . It was just a choice I made to better myself and what I wanted to do with my life.”
It was on Father’s Day of 2008 when Wilhelmsen made the decision that he wanted to play baseball again. He called his father, John, a former high school and youth coach in the Tucson area, who immediately grabbed a glove and told Tom to meet him at a park. One can easily visualize a “Field of Dreams” type of Hollywood moment, with Wilhelmsen and his father having a catch on that special day.
“He’s definitely my number one supporter and the reason I’m here,” Wilhelmsen of his dad. “He was the guy that put on the glove and started throwing with me and working out with me . . . He’s just been the guy in my corner.”
Wilhelmsen tried out for the Tucson Toros in 2009, a new franchise in the independent Golden League, made the team and wound up pitching 11 games out of the Toros bullpen. After the season he checked in with Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, who had drafted him as the Brewers’ scouting director. The Mariners signed him to a minor league contract for 2010 and brought him to Peoria for spring training.
He wasn’t yet ready to break camp with a full season team, and spent the early part of the year in extended spring training and in the Rookie-level Arizona League. After five games in the AZL and three more with short-season Everett, Wilhelmsen returned to the Midwest League—seven years after his first pro season there. He compiled a 6-1, 2.23 record in seven games with Clinton, with 37 strikeouts and 15 walks in 44 innings.
Wilhelmsen’s performance in the Arizona Fall League has received positive comments from scouts and coaches. Pitching strictly out of the bullpen, he’s fanned 15 batters in 11 innings and is holding opposing batters to a .190 average. He’s working mostly with his two plus pitches—a fastball generally in the 94-96 range, with really good angle on the pitch, and a power curveball in the low 80s. His delivery is clean, which allows him to repeat it. He’s working on a changeup but uses it infrequently in games.
It’s not just the arm and delivery that has impressed Walker. He also sees somewhat of a silent leader in Wilhelmsen.
“Tom’s one of those guys that leads by example rather than by expression,” Walker said. “He goes about his business . . . he’s very mature. He’s able to handle the ups and downs of the game, and I think that feeds off these other kids that are fresh to this scene and are seeing older hitters. To see him go about his business I think has rubbed off on some guys.”
Wilhelmsen knows that he’s still got a lot of work ahead of him, as he’s missed out on a lot of baseball lessons over the past five years. He’s using his time in the AFL to get caught up with his younger teammates.
“All I wanted to do was get the chance to throw to more experienced hitters and work on my command and changeup,” Wilhelmsen said, “and talk to some other pitchers that have been pitching at higher levels to get a better perspective on where to improve and how to improve as you move up . . . I need to hold runners a little better than I’ve been doing. I need to get in better fielding position.”
With two plus pitches and his maturity, Wilhelmsen could move through the Mariners system pretty quickly. Walker agrees, seeing a special pitcher in the making.
“Just seeing this kind of arm,” Walker said, “to see him bounce back after all these years and be able to come back and compete is special.”
While he’s still got the engaging, outgoing personality of his past, Wilhelmsen is better grounded and motivated but ready to accept whatever happens to him moving forward.
“As long as I’m healthy, my family’s healthy, and I can still wear a smile, I guess it really makes no matter,” Wilhelmsen said.
• The AFL championship game will be held on Saturday, Nov. 20, at Scottsdale Stadium. The game will be broadcast live on the MLB Network at 2:30 p.m. ET. The Scottsdale Scorpions have already clinched the East division title while the Peoria Javelinas hold a four-game lead in the West division with four games remaining.
• Rangers infielder Michael Young will be inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame prior to the Wednesday night game at Scottsdale Stadium between the Solar Sox and Scorpions. Young appeared in the AFL in 2000 while a member of the Blue Jays organization.
• A pair of Peoria Javelinas are two of the of the hottest players in the league of late. Second baseman Dustin Ackley (Mariners), last year’s second overall draft pick out of North Carolina, is batting .528/.633/.944 in his last 10 games and is showing more over-the-fence power with three home runs in his last 28 at-bats. Lefthander Marc Rzepczynski (Blue Jays), who’s already pitched 25 games in the big leagues, put together a pair of six-inning scoreless outings in his last two starts.