Wilson speeding down comeback trail

Wilson speeding down comeback trail

SARASOTA, Fla. -- A 34-year-old starting pitcher with a big-league career that dates back to 1996, Paul Wilson knows all about Spring Training.

With an injury history that dates back nearly as long, Wilson also knows all about comeback attempts.

What Wilson doesn't know, is whether this latest comeback attempt will succeed at this Spring Training. He's making a second try to return from an extensive shoulder operation that's kept him off a Major League mound since May 2005.

"I'm anxious to get back out there and be a ballplayer again and see if my arm is capable of doing it," Wilson said. "We trained real hard this offseason and prepared really well. But there are a lot of unknowns about what will happen, just question marks."

Cincinnati has an opening for the fifth spot in the rotation, with several pitchers in camp seeking to fill it, including Matt Belisle, Elizardo Ramirez and Kirk Saarloos. Reds manager Jerry Narron said that Wilson is definitely in the mix.

"I think he deserves that," Narron said. "If he can come back, we'd have our No. 1 starter from a couple years ago be our No. 5 starter."

Wilson would take any spot he can get.

"No doubt, anywhere in the rotation," Wilson said. "Anywhere on the staff I should say."

Surgeries on his shoulder and elbow cost Wilson most of the 1997-99 seasons. With the Reds since 2003, he went 11-6 with a 4.36 ERA in 2004 and was 1-5 with a 7.77 ERA during a painful 2005 season, before opting for his second shoulder procedure that June.

Wilson attempted to return in time for last season but was met with numerous setbacks. He came to camp with hopes he'd be ready by Opening Day but didn't throw off a mound until later in camp and had lowered velocity and never made it into an exhibition game.

The first Minor League rehabilitation assignment in April lasted only two starts before a fatigued shoulder stopped Wilson in May. A second rehab assignment in July yielded two more outings but the pitcher was shut down for the year by July 20.

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"I knew we were pushing it trying to get it going last year," said Wilson, a former overall No. 1 draft pick of the Mets in 1994. "But it was something we all decided to do. It just got to the point where [the shoulder] couldn't handle the load. It didn't matter what we did. I had to back off and it was tough to not do anything last year when I thought that I could. It's behind me now."

A ferocious trainer, Wilson's long shoulder-length brown hair is frequently covered in sweat from one of his many hard workouts. He's done the running, the lifting and anything else that could get his arm, and his body, ready.

"It probably seems like years for him to go a year without pitching," Narron said. "I know he definitely works hard. He's going to be as prepared as he can possibly be. He's going to compete as hard as anybody. It's going to be a matter of if his arm has come back to where it was."

Wilson resumed throwing and long-tossing in December, up to five days a week. An early arrival to camp, he began throwing off of a mound just recently. The Reds medical staff has been given no reason to hold him back.

"I'm more or less just pushing it, seeing what it can handle," Wilson said. "It's given me no limitations. We're going to go after it as if nothing ever happened. There are no rules and no regulations on what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm just letting it fly."

"It looks like he's come a long way from last spring," Narron said.

This year, Wilson is missing the security of a multiyear deal and roster spot. At this time in 2006, he was entering the second year of a two-year, $8.2 million contract. At the end of last season, the Reds made a commitment to Wilson that he would be invited to big-league camp with an incentive-laden Minor League contract. The deal was finalized in January and he is in camp as a non-roster player.

Wilson wasn't ready to view this opportunity as a final chance to return to the Majors.

"I've thought about it and it would be finite to do that," he said. "Baseball is a funny game. Lots of things happen. I don't want to leave anything to chance. I want to find out what's available for me."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.