Tom Wilhelmsen, who took over as the Seattle Mariners closer in 2012 when Brandon League stumbled in the role mid-season, has done a hell of a job locking the inning down for the team, recording 29 saves in 34 attempts, while posting a 2.50/1.11 ERA/WHIP and holding opponents to a .200 BAA.
He will go into 2013 as the team’s undisputed closer, and deserves to do so. That said, there’s a decent chance that he will end next season without the job.
That’s because Stephen Pryor, the 23-year old with just 23 innings of work in the bigs, could well ascend to the top of the Mariners bullpen riding his electric fastball. It’s not a knock on Wilhelmsen, who features a high-90s four-seam/two-seam fastball combo himself, but he simply does not have what Pryor has: a fastball that can hit triple digits.
100 mph. It’s the magic number that make GMs and managers salivate, and throwing a fastball that hard something that very few at the game’s highest level can do.
Pryor is one of those few, having just learned to amp his fastball up to the magic territory recently. That might explain his lightning-quick ascent across three minor-league levels all the way to the majors in 2012, where he debuted in June by throwing darts that topped out at 99.8 MPH.
Though he gave up a home run in that multi-inning debut, Pryor’s fastball was a head-turner. That’s saying a lot, considering that there wasn’t much to see with the listless Mariners last year.
There were thoughts that Pryor would be quickly groomed to be the next closer of the team, but he needed the experience first. To do that, the team needed him to pitch innings with increased leverage, a plan that was derailed in the middle of June when he suffered a strained groin that saw him miss the next 32 games.
Pryor didn’t get back to the majors until the end of July, and during his absence, Wilhelmsen had taken over as the team’s full-time closer, and as I mentioned, locked down the job as well as could be expected.
And for that, Wilhelmsen will be given the benefit of the doubt in 2013; but, he may not have much in terms of job security. Pryor will start the season in the set-up role, and remains the guy who is being lined up as the heir apparent should anything go wrong with Wilhelmsen’s season.
It won’t happen immediately, of course. Like last season, the Mariners will want to see Pryor show consistent success in high-leverage innings first. He’ll have to trim his home-run rate down, and he’ll have to stay healthy enough to do it.
But, armed with all the potential that comes with triple digit heat, and a 10.57 K/9 in his first stint in the majors, it may not even take the whole season before he’s banging on the door for the Mariners’ closing job.