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40 in 40: Joe Wieland

Who is this guy? No, really, who is he?

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Think about your professional career for a minute: Are you the same employee you were four years ago? In some ways, you probably are. Perhaps you still park the car at 7:58 sharp, toss back two cups of coffee by nine, and knock out the day’s emails before lunch.

But there’s
no way that either your routine or your ability remained static. Maybe you switched jobs. If you did, your new coworkers and business objectives undoubtedly re-shaped how you spend your workweek. Even people who haven’t changed desks become more efficient or complacent with time. You might spend more time reading Lookout Landing on the clock; perhaps a bit less. Like it or not though, you’ve changed substantially. Humanity’s affinity for consistency is all for naught. Our thirst for stability obscures just how different we become over time.

Those differences are particularly apparent with Joe Wieland.

The latest contender for an early-season spot start in Seattle, Wieland has taken a rollercoaster from Las Vegas’s Bishop Manogue High School to the Mariners organization. Texas drafted him in the fourth round in 2008, and he quickly established himself as a potential big league contributor. Good control and a feel for pitching were his calling cards, but he wasn’t without stuff either, working with a fastball that reached the low-90’s while flashing average or better secondaries. When San Diego snagged him (and Robbie Erlin) in a 2011 deal for Mike Adams, prospect evaluators believed the Padres had acquired a future rotation piece.
From Baseball Prospectus:

"Like Erlin, Wieland is quite the gamer, always looking for the advantage, attacking hitters with a plan rather than with a "here it is, hit this" type of approach. With a deep arsenal that also includes a fringy changeup and the makings of a very good slider, Wieland has the command and the delivery to become a solid-average starter at the major league level."

Twenty-one year olds are never a finished product, however, and as fortune would have it, Wieland took a developmental leap forward the moment he arrived in San Diego’s system. Suddenly, his low-90’s fastball evolved into a mid-90’s heater, and the velocity gains extended to his slider and a 12-6 curveball that suddenly flashed plus. By the end of 2011, some camps viewed Wieland as one of top starting pitchers in the minor leagues. BP ranked him as baseball’s 74th best prospect, one notch ahead of Anthony Rizzo. When Wieland was recalled to make his major league debut the following April, it’s safe to say that expectations had changed. Again from BP:

"[I]n 2011, he suddenly found an extra 2-4 ticks on his fastball and proceeded to have a breakout campaign... What was once an average fastball was now consistently sitting in the low 90s while touching 94-95… Wieland's outstanding control is likely one of the reasons the Padres called on him."

Naturally, Wieland walked his first big league hitter on five pitches, en route to a messy debut against the Dodgers. He recovered though, striking out a batter per inning and generally limiting damage over his next few starts. His velocity had dwindled a bit from the previous August, but he threw strikes and his curve had plenty of bite. In his fifth outing, he was a strike away from tossing six shutout innings, only to lose a 2-0 lead on a Logan Morrison triple, of all things. As manager Bud Black removed him from the game, Wieland jogged off the field, shaking his head in frustration, entirely unaware that his next big league pitch was 28 months away.

Wieland felt discomfort in his elbow during a throwing session a few days later. The malady was initially diagnosed as mild discomfort, and Black announced that he would rest his young right-hander for a few weeks. This being baseball and Wieland’s employer
being the Padres, he naturally needed Tommy John surgery. The procedure wasn’t carried out until July, knocking him out not only for the rest of 2012, but also most of 2013. When Wieland returned to the mound, triceps pain limited him to just two innings of complex league work. Co-workers began referring to him as "John." 

2014 should have been a big year for Wieland. Though he had missed two seasons of development time, he had an opportunity to climb right back into the starting five. The Padres had a thin rotation, particularly once it became clear that Josh Johnson wouldn’t be available. But in March, he again felt discomfort in his elbow. While he only needed arthroscopic surgery this time, the procedure sidelined him until July. He returned early enough to earn a promotion back to San Diego by season’s end, though the accumulated rust from an extended layoff led to uncharacteristically poor command, and he was battered in limited duty.

Traded to Los Angeles as part of the haul for Matt Kemp, Wieland finally had the chance to pitch a full season in the Dodgers system. His velocity and control were back – he posted a BB/9 under 2 in 113 Triple-A innings – but once again, he changed his workplace routine. Perhaps concerned that his slider was behind his elbow problems, Wieland shelved the pitch and opted to rely more on his curve and change. That could have worked just fine, had his curve not morphed into a slow, loopy offering that he had trouble commanding. Working with diminished stuff, Triple-A bats hit him well, and he fared poorly in both of his big league outings. With fifteen other pitchers on hand capable of starting games next year, the Dodgers deemed Wieland surplus to requirements, and shipped him to Seattle for future utility man Erick Mejia and a vacancy on their 40-man roster.

So, what will Wieland do in 2016? I don’t know and neither do you and neither does he. Given Seattle’s rotation depth, he figures to begin the season in Tacoma. If everything clicks, he could slot in as a backend starter for the M’s, and that’s a better future than most pitchers with his injury record can hope for.

But projecting Wieland's performance is a fool's errand. He was a different pitcher in 2011 than he was in 2012, and even since returning to the bump in 2014, he's changed his pitch mix and re-shaped his curve. With two elbow surgeries, three trades, and four development staffs on his ledger, there's no extended track record of performance we can point to and say "this is Joe Wieland." It's anyone's guess how he throws this March. For now, we know that fastball command is an important part of his game, and that the depth and velocity on his curve are worth monitoring too. Given his history though, it wouldn't be surprising if he transforms again this March. It's hard to be
optimistic about Wieland, but he sure is interesting.