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Shawn Kelley, Tom Wilhelmsen might have to work late
If bullpen veterans Hong-Chih Kuo and George Sherrill aren't ready, the Mariners will count on less-experienced arms in the late innings.
Seattle Times staff reporter
PEORIA, Ariz. — The last time Shawn Kelley showed up for Mariners spring training, bullpen teammate Tom Wilhelmsen had been out of professional baseball going on six years.
But heading into Mariners camp this spring, it was Kelley who needed to pitch his way onto the squad. Wilhelmsen, meanwhile, had established himself as a late-inning bullpen option.
Kelley continues to work his way back from elbow surgery that scuttled most of his 2011 season, but remains optimistic his biggest problems are behind him.
And the way things are unfolding in camp, with some veterans taking time to get going, the Mariners may wind up needing both the less-experienced Kelley and Wilhelmsen a lot more often than they expected.
"I can do all the same stuff I was able to do before," said Kelley, who hasn't allowed a run in three spring outings. "It's taken a while for me to come back, but now that I'm here, I'm ready to get going,"
A quick glance around the clubhouse by Kelley confirms that the only pitchers left from his 2009 debut season are Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas. Kelley outranks even closer Brandon League for Mariners bullpen longevity. But Kelley, a right-hander, has appeared in just 32 games since 2009 because of elbow woes culminating in partial ligament transplant surgery in September 2010.
His lack of playing time is one reason the Mariners added bullpen veterans late this offseason, including left-handers Hong-Chih Kuo and George Sherrill. The team was nervous about its bullpen depth, given Kelley's long layoff and Wilhelmsen's lack of experience despite two stellar months of late-inning results late last year.
But now, with the Mariners two weeks from heading to Japan to open the season, some uncertainty over younger relief pitchers has been replaced by question marks about older ones.
Sherrill has been slow to return from his own elbow problems. He allowed a home run in an 8-5 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday before retiring the side with some good breaking balls.
Of bigger concern is Kuo, a hard-throwing left-hander who the team had hoped would provide another bridge to the closer, League. Kuo allowed a home run to Rusty Ryal on the very first pitch he threw against Arizona, then gave up a single and a pair of one-out walks before getting a strikeout.
"He's still struggling with his command," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said of Kuo. "He was down at times, better, today and that's the guy we need to see. But just trying to tighten up his delivery a bit to where he's a little more consistent with his release point and can be a little more consistent and just down at home plate."
Kuo's well-documented struggles with command led to his release by the Dodgers this offseason, just two years removed from an All-Star season. One of his pitches on Friday missed the target — high by two feet — and forced the catcher to make a quick, overhead grab.
If Kuo can't figure things out well enough to work the late innings in a few weeks, more of that task could fall on guys like Kelley and Wilhelmsen. Despite being a right-hander, Kelley's slider used to be the most effective weapon Seattle had against left-handed batters. And Wilhelmsen's live arm reeks of late-inning material.
"I think the key for me is, when I came back up (from Class AAA) last August, I stopped being fearful of major league hitters," said Wilhelmsen, who excelled in eighth- and ninth-inning situations when tested. "Instead of wondering where to throw the ball so I wouldn't get hit, I just started to say 'OK, here's my pitch, let's see you hit it.' "
Wilhelmsen's fastball and curveball have helped him hold hitters to a .154 batting average this spring. He got so excited about one strikeout-inducing curve on Thursday against the Cubs that he wound up as part of a rare strikeout/E1 call.
The ball bounced in the dirt on the strikeout and ricocheted back toward the mound, where Wilhelmsen picked it up and threw wildly to first base.
"I was so excited about the curveball working and probably could have planted my feet better before I threw," he said sheepishly.
The mistake later led to two unearned runs, though Wilhelmsen hasn't allowed an earned run yet in two outings and three innings. The Mariners can live with a spring training mistake or two, especially one as odd as that.
They can also more than live with Kelley regaining his form against hitters from both sides on the plate. The team wants to limit the 34-year-old Sherrill to a more situational role, given his age and recent elbow troubles, which is why they went out and got pitchers like Kuo and Camp to work entire innings late.
If Kuo can't work entire innings late as effectively as before, Kelley's slider could once again bail the team out when lefties are due up in the seventh and eighth.
"I'll help them against lefties, against righties, I'll even throw left-handed if they need me to," Kelley quipped. "But, yeah, getting my slider back to what it was has been one of the biggest things for me."
And the Mariners will feel more comfortable knowing they have young guys who can get it done if the older ones need more time.
Catcher Adam Moore, who was initially thought to have suffered a fractured bone in his right (throwing) wrist on Tuesday, got some good medical news. The injury is now believed to be more like a bone chip that broke off.
Instead of a cast, Moore has been fitted with a partially mobile splint and will begin catching bullpen sessions again on Saturday. Moore said the splint will come off within two weeks and that he could even play again in Cactus League games in three or four weeks.
• The Mariners made initial spring cuts, sending LHPs Steve Garrison and Philippe Valiquette and RHP Jarrett Grube to the minor-league camp.
• Vargas threw 82 pitches over four innings against the Diamondbacks as he builds toward making the second start of the season, in Japan. Vargas was tagged for two home runs and five earned runs.
• Alex Liddi had a double, two singles and a stolen base and continues to impress coaches with more plate discipline.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com.
On Twitter @gbakermariners
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