The M's got five steps closer to finalizing their 2015 Roster on Friday by avoiding salary arbitration with five players--Dustin Ackley, Charlie Furbush, Austin Jackson, Logan Morrison, and the newly acquired Justin Ruggiano. Missing from the list, however, is everyone's favorite bartender-turned-Deadhead-turned-closer-turned-competent-bullpen-arm Tom Wilhelmsen.
Wilhelmsen remains the only arbitration eligible player left unsigned by the M's, as he is seeking a contract in the range of $2.2 million over the $1.4 million offered up by the club. As Ryan Divish notes over at the Seattle Times, it's unlikely the two sides will make it all the way to arbitration hearings in February, as the Mariners typically end up avoiding the process internally (Of course, I'm not sure which club wouldn't rather deal with a salary discrepancy of under a million dollars for a 31-year old right handed reliever internally, so that fire has probably been extinguished before it even started). Wilhelmsen will most likely get something in between, and then hopefully have a successful 2015 coming out of one of the best bullpens in all of baseball.
Something about all this feels kind of interesting, though. Wilhelmsen certainly deserves his money this season--he is the longest-tenured member of the M's bullpen, and despite having a confusing mechanical breakdown after saving the city of Seattle from the terror of Brandon League, he has proven himself adaptable by performing admirably in a new role last season. In the process, he's had to change his arsenal a little bit, relying more on his slider and changeup after losing the pinpoint control of the 12-6 curveball that led him to a 1.4 win season in 2012. He developed a bit of a home run problem last season, but his xFIP actually dropped nearly an entire point down to 3.69 after a career-high 4.57 in 2013. He still misses bats, and he still hits 98 on his fourseamer. Tom Wilhelmsen is going to get a raise.
But will he get the full $2.2 million dollars? That amount of money wouldn't only make him the second highest-paid member of the Mariners' pen, it would also put him in company with A's reliever Jesse Chavez and the Giants' Yusmeiro Petit, each of whom were offered as much from their clubs earlier in the week. This is a bit arbitrary, but keep in mind that both Chavez and Petit have been shuffled in and out of their clubs' starting rotations after dealing with an injury onslaught and Tim Lincecum respectively. Both are certainly great pitchers on their own merit, but much of their value comes in the fact that they can adapt to fill holes where needed in the wake of contingency. Tom isn't a starter, but you can fill in the blanks yourself.
Now, no, I know what you're thinking. I'm not saying that the Mariners have had talks to convert Tom Wilhelmsen to a starter because he's asking for the same amount of money as players who have done just that. But the Mariners have discussed that very move before, intrigued after he made that spot start against the Twins last July, and he surely knows it. Here's Lloyd, quoted in a Greg Johns piece from MLB.com, when asked about that very possibility:
I mean, I think it would be awfully hard to build him this year, but certainly going into Spring Training that's something we would probably entertain. Why not? He's 94-97 [mph] with real good sink, he's got a cutter, curveball, slider, changeup and is a power guy who has flourished in the long roles. And he's mature enough probably to handle it.
Lloyd seems to be floundering on sides here, and you can certainly read his intent on either side of the coin. But it seems clear that both the club and the player are aware that there remains some untapped starting potential waiting to be taken advantage of, and as a result, Tom is rightfully going to try and get a few extra dollars. And he probably will, too.
Of course, there is a huge difference between wholly converting a reliever into a starter, and we've covered that ground here as recently as October. Crucial to Chavez and Petit's success (and their one-and-a-half-win 2014s) wasn't that two game-ready starters were found biding their time in warmup jackets on the bench a la Hisashi Iwakuma or R.A. Dickey--it was the fact that they were each able to adapt to changing circumstances as needed.
If you remember, Tom's start against the Twins last July didn't go quite as well as Petit and Chavez' transitions to the first innings. By the third, Wilhelmsen was already appearing tired, running into trouble and eventually getting pulled for Danny Farquhar in what effectively turned into a long bullpen day. But Lloyd remained intrigued, giving him the first innings against the Blue Jays in September when the Mariners had to pull Chris Young upon his total implosion. He doesn't appear ready to make successful spot starts yet, but the conversations (and games) have certainly been had. And as a result, you kind of have to wonder what the possibility of prepping Wilhelmsen for longer appearances looks like this spring, despite the fact that the M's have added injury depth absent last season in Roenis Elias and Erasmo Ramirez.
Wilhelmsen cannot be unaware of the situation he is in. His $2.2 million offer may be admittedly higher than what he actually expects to receive from the club before arbitration, but it clearly suggests he understands that he isn't going to simply be a spot arm out of the pen next season. And likewise, the M's reticence to match it also mirrors their belief that he may not be ready to last seven innings in the wake of impending injury.
Either way, we are talking about a difference of a couple hundred thousand dollars on the balance sheet of a billion-dollar transnational corporation. Tom Wilhelmsen is going to make a little more money than the Mariners initially offered him, and then we will get to watch him throw baseballs in a few months. Dance on, my friend. Dance on.