The Orioles will have some pitching decisions to make when spring training comes.
Most players hit a wall at some point during their rookie season, and Orioles right-hander Tyler Wilson hit his rather dramatically at last season's midway mark.
Wilson used a strong spring training to earn an Opening Day roster spot and eventually worked his way into the Orioles' starting rotation. But after making 13 consecutive starts between April 23 and July 2, and posting a 5.67 ERA in that span, Wilson was demoted to Triple-A Norfolk.
The Orioles cited fatigue, and Wilson didn't pitch for nearly two weeks before making his first start for Triple-A Norfolk. He returned to the Orioles on three occasions, but all eight of his remaining big-league appearances came in relief.
"I think there was a lot of good and a lot of bad," Wilson said, speaking at this month's Orioles holiday party. "I think the bad is part of the development. My first couple years in the big leagues, there's a lot of things I've learned and that's a product of those struggles. I'm thankful for that. Obviously, you don't want those struggles as far as results go, but you have to face adversity to be able to learn and grow as a player. So, I'm looking forward to the upcoming season."
As Wilson looks to build on last season's roller-coaster ride, he remains a valuable depth piece. He showed his capability to provide a spot start or fill in the starting rotation, but he also gave the Orioles critical multiple-inning relief outings out of the pen.
Looking back at 2016, Wilson said he might have peaked too early in the season. Knowing he was trying to earn a roster spot in spring training, he wanted to give the Orioles a glimpse of his best in March, but he realized that might have led him to tire come midseason.
"I think that's one of the biggest takeaways from last year is I felt really good in spring training and the first half of the year and then kind of hit a wall, per se, in the second half," Wilson said. "And the second half is the most important half of the season. I've made some adjustments in my offseason training and hopefully can be on the incline going into the second half rather than maxing out earlier in the season when it's not as valuable."
Wilson said this offseason, he's focusing on pacing himself better, working to gain strength going into the season but also not throwing as early to ensure his arm remains live later in the season.
"In years past, I've felt like coming into spring training, you always want to drive something and set a tone," Wilson said. "And let you teammates know that you've put your time in in the offseason and are ready to go. I think I maybe started throwing too early and the quantity of work has been a little too much. I felt great in spring training, but it's a marathon, not a sprint type of sport. I think pushing back my timeline a little bit and alleviating some of that volume is going to lead to a better second half."
Wilson gave the Orioles one of the best starting pitching performances of the season, throwing eight shutout innings of three-hit ball on June 16 at Fenway Park. It was the first 100-pitch start of his major league career, and he followed it with another one, a six-inning quality start five days later at home against the San Diego Padres in 101 pitches.
But those back-to-back 100-pitch outings seemed to take something out of Wilson. He allowed 12 base runners and five runs over five innings in his next start against Tampa Bay and failed to get an out in the fourth inning on July 2, allowing eight runs on nine hits in his final start before getting demoted. He allowed five homers in his last two starts over eight innings.
When Wilson returned in relief, he seemed to have more life to his fastball, averaging 92-93 mph compared to the 90-91 he averaged as a starter. His ability to induce ground balls plays to the Orioles' infield defense strength, and manager Buck Showalter has talked about how there is a calming influence when Wilson enters the game out of the bullpen. Throughout the organization, Wilson is seen as a quick study, a pitcher who can overcome having average stuff with having a mental edge.
Having said all of that, it would seem that Wilson's best fit – at least early in the season next year – would be as a long reliever to succeed departed long man Vance Worley. The fact that Wilson still has minor league options also fits well because it would allow the club to move him down and recall a fresh reliever if he pitches too many relief innings.
Wilson said he's not thinking about his role on next year's team.
"We had really good pitchers last year and it was a battle to be in the mix sometimes," Wilson said. "That intra-team competition is a really good thing. ... You go out there and train to do whatever you can to help the team. And whatever role that ends up being, I'll be prepared for it."
Wilson gained his roster spot last season by showing the Orioles a rare moxie on the mound. He doesn't have the best arsenal and doesn't miss many bats, but his grit helped get hitters out. Still, he allowed 110 hits over 94 innings and posted a 1.426 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched), and if he continues to allow that many baserunners without exemplary stuff, he's going to get burned more times than not.
"The game is still the game in the big leagues like everybody talks about," Wilson said. "But there's certain things that don't necessarily fly in the big leagues that maybe do in the minor leagues. Just witnessing it firsthand, it's a lot easier to grow and learn from that being on the mound and witnessing those things happen, or the dugout or bullpen, wherever it may be. It's just a lot easier to witness them happen and learn from those."