Wilhelmsen's Rangers deal next step on journey

Righty avoids arbitration with one-year contract for 2016

Wilhelmsen's Rangers deal next step on journey

ARLINGTON -- Right-hander Tom Wilhelmsen was a closer for much of his time with the Mariners. One of his 67 Major League saves was the final inning of a six-pitcher no-hitter started by Kevin Millwood against the Dodgers on June 8, 2012.

Wilhelmsen still wants to be a closer, but he understands it might not be possible with the Rangers. Shawn Tolleson has that role after saving 35 games for the Rangers in 2015.

"I definitely love closing," Wilhelmsen said Wednesday from his home in Tucson, Ariz. "I feel comfortable in that role. Ultimately, I'm trying to be that. But Tolleson did a great job and he's coming back, so I'd be happy to set him up or help the team any way I can."

The Rangers want as much bullpen depth as possible, which is why they acquired Wilhelmsen from the Mariners on Nov. 16 -- along with outfielder James Jones and infielder Patrick Kivlehan -- for outfielder Leonys Martin and pitcher Anthony Bass.

Wilhelmsen, who avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $3.1 million contract with the Rangers on Wednesday, joins a potentially deep group of right-handed relievers that includes Tolleson, Sam Dyson, Keone Kela, Tanner Scheppers, Luke Jackson and free agent Tony Barnette.

"Those guys were pretty good last year," Wilhelmsen said "I'm definitely aware of what they have there, being in the other dugout for the past five or six years. I don't worry about it. It will be more competition, and that will help the team. It will be a tough group. I just want to blend in."

Wilhelmsen wasn't expecting to be traded by the Mariners, but they were looking to increase the athleticism of their everyday lineup and wanted Martin in their outfield.

"At first, I was pretty surprised, just getting traded in general," Wilhelmsen said. "But once I got off the phone with [Rangers general manager Jon Daniels], I was pretty happy. … Pretty happy to be on a postseason ballclub."

Wilhelmsen earns five-out save

Pitching in the postseason and possibly a World Series would be the next remarkable step for a guy who was out of baseball for five years. There aren't many players who followed as circuitous a route to the Major Leagues as Wilhelmsen.

But he did it his way.

He was a seventh-round pick by the Brewers out of high school in 2002 but spent just one full season in their farm system. He was suspended in 2004 for twice testing positive for marijuana, went through rehab and then quit the game after being "burned out" in 2005. He went three years without throwing a baseball or even watching the game on television.

Instead, he backpacked through America's national parks, worked as a bartender at The Hut in Tucson, played co-ed softball and traveled through Europe with his future wife, Cassie.

Wilhelmsen, starting to mature and not eager to spend the rest of his life as a bartender, finally started throwing again in 2008 and pitched for the Tucson Toros in the independent Golden Baseball League in 2009. An arm injury cut that season short, but he didn't give up, and the following season he convinced the Mariners to give him a tryout.

General manager Jack Zduriencik had drafted Wilhelmsen with the Brewers and saw that he could still throw 95-97 mph. Wilhelmsen was signed to a Minor League contract, and one year later, he was on the Mariners' Opening Day roster.

"It was definitely a different way of going about things," Wilhelmsen said. "But it was my way, and I wouldn't change it."

Seems like Wilhelmsen has a pretty good reason why he doesn't worry about what his role will be in the Rangers' bullpen.

"I think about it every day. … 'What the heck am I doing here?'" Wilhelmsen said. "I've got to pinch myself. To be able to stay in the game is a blessing. You've just got to see it and believe it, not put doubt in your mind. Just put it out there and see what happens."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.