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.
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with the Mariners two weeks from heading to Japan to open the season, some uncertainty over younger relief pitchers has been replaced by question marks about older ones.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 elbow problems.
Of bigger concern is Kuo, a hard-throwing left-hander who the team had hoped would provide another bridge to the closer, League.
“He’s still struggling with his command,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said of Kuo.
Wilhelmsen’s fastball and curveball have helped him hold hitters to a .154 average this spring. He hasn’t allowed an earned run in two outings and three innings. The team wants to limit the 34-year-old Sherrill to a more situational role, given his age and recent elbow troubles.