It has been obvious to Red Sox followers this season that the bullpen has been one of the team’s biggest weaknesses, as Boston relievers’ 6.55 ERA entering this weekend was nearly half a run higher than that of any other team. However, help could soon be on the way. Earlier this week the club moved its 2011 minor league pitcher of the year, Alex Wilson, to the bullpen, setting him on a track to possibly help in the majors quite soon.
Until the move was actually made, the Red Sox gave no indication that such a transition was imminent. But hours before Wilson's scheduled start Tuesday for Triple-A Pawtucket, word came down that he was being replaced by veteran Brandon Duckworth. This led to natural questions about whether Wilson, the 14th-ranked prospect at SoxProspects.com, was injured. Those were quickly put to rest. Instead, hopes of a quick elevation to the big league club for the righty emerged.
“I was told [Monday] night,” Wilson said. “I sat down and [they] said they were going to make the switch. The front office came to the decision to go ahead and slide me back there, and [told me] not to look at it as a demotion, but as an opportunity. I’m going to take that and run with it.”
It is an opportunity that could yield quick results for the 25-year-old if the Red Sox bullpen continues to struggle. The organization made a similar switch with Junichi Tazawa in spring training, and he has been one of the better relievers in Boston since his promotion on April 18.
A reliever in his final season at Texas A&M after undergoing Tommy John surgery the year before, many scouts viewed Wilson's fastball-slider combination as tailor made for a bullpen role at the big league level.
“I’m lucky enough to have done it before, so I know what it’s going to be like coming into it,” Wilson said. “The biggest thing for me, it’s not the training, but the mindset of being ready every day. I’ve been used to having four days off, not having to worry about game action or anything like that. For me to be ready day in and day out will be the biggest adjustment.
“I’ve always been a guy that comes right at you -- fastball, slider, changeup if I need it -- kind of deal. I think it’ll play well into my game actually.”
Wilson made his first relief appearance on Tuesday to mixed results. While he struck out a batter in his inning of work, he also allowed an earned run on two hits. An adjustment period is to be expected as he settles into the role, but Wilson expressed confidence following the outing and had little negative to say about the experience.
“I felt great today,” the 6-foot-1 right-hander said. “I had no problem whatsoever. It’s always nice to start with a clean inning. I had the whole half inning -- I knew about it ahead of time. It was smooth sailing really.”
PawSox manager Arnie Beyeler echoed that sentiment, saying, “We talked [to him] earlier about his routine and he seemed to get up and wait, and do what he’s supposed to do. He didn’t get up early and throw down there forever. He just got up, went in, and did what he does.”
SoxProspects.com director of scouting Chris Mellen was in attendance at Pawtucket for the appearance and commented afterward that Wilson appeared to be rushing his delivery and generally looked a bit out of sync. As a result, he wasn't able to keep his fastball down and the pitch sat around 91-93 m.p.h., topping out at 94, similar velocity to what he showed as a starter. But Mellen believes that in short bursts the righty's fastball will be able to touch as high as 97 m.p.h. as he settles into the role.
“I thought he did a nice job of getting the ball down [the] further in the outing he went,” said Beyeler. “As he went on, his fastball got down in the zone much better. That’s where he’s going to have to be to have some success and that’s where he hasn't been consistently so far this season.”
In general, the Red Sox prefer to let pitching prospects work as starters for as long as possible to give them more opportunity to hone their craft and develop their pitches, so Wilson had started exclusively as a professional since signing as a second-round pick in 2009.
With a 3.05 ERA in 21 Double-A starts last season, followed by a solid four-game stint in Pawtucket in which he had 24 strikeouts in 21 innings, Wilson had handled the role well. This season with the PawSox, he had a 1.80 ERA up until a rough start on April 19 in which he allowed six earned runs at Syracuse. So rather than being based on performance, the move is likely a sign that the Red Sox are content with their other starting depth options at this time, and see this as an opportunity to improve one of their biggest areas of weakness at the big league level.
Since Wilson spent those years starting, there are still many nuances of relieving for him to adapt to, such as coming into games mid-inning and making back-to-back appearances. Beyeler said that there are no immediate plans to pitch Wilson in a back-to-back situation, but that will be worked into the mix before long.
“I’m sure I’ll get different kind of looks -- be brought in the middle of an inning,” Wilson said. “It’s just getting acclimated to that whole world. It’s totally different and it’s a different mindset. It’ll take some time to get used to, but hopefully we’ll make it quick.
“It’s just going to take a couple of outings to kind of get the feel back and really learn my body again for this kind of situation.”
The Red Sox can only hope Wilson is correct in that assessment of how long the transition will take. If true, it may not be long before he receives the call he's been waiting for since signing with the organization.
Matt Huegel is a senior editor and columnist for SoxProspects.com. Kevin Pereira contributed to this report.