Wilhelmsen OK with staying in relief role

Wilhelmsen OK with staying in relief role

PEORIA, Ariz. -- There were times over the winter when manager Lloyd McClendon toyed with the notion of stretching right-handed reliever Tom Wilhelmsen out this spring to see how he might fare as a rotation candidate, but that idea never gained traction, for several reasons.

One, the Mariners have a strong group of starters competing for five spots. And two, Wilhelmsen was slowed at the start of camp by a sore back and is just now preparing to make his first Cactus League appearance, which will come when Seattle hosts Colorado on Wednesday at Peoria Sports Complex.

Wilhelmsen, 31, was an extremely effective long reliever and setup man last season, and he's fine staying in that role.

"The way I'm looking at it, I'm a relief pitcher until I hear otherwise," said Wilhelmsen. "I'm pretty sure I'm locked into a bullpen role at this point, which is great. I'm familiar with the routine, and I'm not going to change anything."

That includes his free-spirited approach, which fits perfectly with a fun-loving group of Mariners relievers.

Wilhelmsen threw his first batting practice to a group of Minor League hitters on Monday. He's about a week behind most of the team's pitchers after straining his back lifting some weights before camp, but that's where being a reliever takes off some of the pressure.

"I guess being a relief pitcher has its ups in spring," he said. "I don't have to go out and throw five innings right out of the gate. I'll need to be able to go one or two innings, which we'll definitely get by the end of camp, and we'll take it from there."

Wilhelmsen was outstanding in his relief role last season, going 3-2 with one save and a 2.27 ERA in 57 appearances while holding opposing batters to a .171 average. After saving 63 games in 2012-13 as a closer, he showed his versatility last season in making two spot starts and working multiple innings in 22 of his 55 relief outings.

Though he went 0-1 with a 6.75 ERA in those two starts, he posted a 0.69 ERA in four relief appearances of three or more innings, thus piquing McClendon's interest. But the skipper believes Wilhelmsen was a key cog in a bullpen that posted the lowest ERA in baseball last season, and that figures to be the overriding factor as to why he'll be right back in the same role in 2015.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.