SARASOTA, FLA. — Orioles manager Buck Showalter has made no secret that right-hander Tyler Wilson has been one of the most intriguing pitchers in big league camp this spring.
Wilson was named the organization's minor league pitcher of the year after a breakthrough season in 2014. But he still entered camp as a relative unknown, because most of the major league staff hadn't seen him pitch much entering spring training.
Wilson, is in his first big league camp, remains with the big league club heading into the final week of Grapefruit League games. He's seen the lockers in the clubhouse empty with each round of cuts. And Orioles manager Buck Showalter said he's not sending Wilson down until the 25-year-old pitcher gets everything he can out of big league camp.
Showalter announced Thursday that he is giving Wilson his first spring training start Saturday afternoon against the New York Yankees at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla., a test to see how Wilson handles a formidable lineup under the spotlight.
"That's awesome," Wilson said Friday of the assignment. "That's the team everybody always talks about when you're growing up, but I'm not going to approach it any differently. It's just going to be the same as any other outing. It doesn't matter who steps in the box. I'm just going to try to pitch my game and work ahead and throw strikes and throw down in the zone and go from there.
"I hope all their [top] guys play," Wilson added. "I think it would be a great experience after watching those guys on TV forever to see what they have. I want their best. I want to get better in any way that I can."
There's no doubt that the Orioles must plan for the future beyond 2015. They could lose two members of their starting rotation — left-hander Wei-Yin Chen and right-hander Bud Norris — to free agency after this season, and the club hopes to see now which pitching prospects could help fill those holes.
Wilson is among those under consideration, especially after going 14-8 with a 3.67 ERA between Triple-A Norfolk and Double-A Bowie in 2014, his best professional season.
Over the course of a year, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Wilson went from a relatively anonymous minor leaguer to one of the organization's top pitching prospects.
"This will be my fourth [full] year now and maybe I was a little bit slower than people had anticipated, and that's fine that maybe I fell into that category," Wilson said. "But it's a combination of one thing evolving and then everything slowly coming together to what it is now.
"I think this past year, I did a much better job being content with the pitcher I was and to really focus on my strengths and improving my own weaknesses ... rather than trying to be somebody I may not be or somebody maybe the Orioles wanted me to be. It's difficult to have success in this game being who you are, and when you lose yourself in the mix and you start trying to do things you don't normally do, you're setting yourself up for failure."
Showalter has done his homework on Wilson, dating back to his high school days outside Richmond and his time at the University of Virginia.
"He did nothing but win," Showalter said. ". He can dot a [donkey's butt] with a fastball. He can spin a ball for a strike. [He's] a guy that will keep you in ballgames for five to seven innings potentially. ...
"That's why we're going to run him out there against the Yankees on Saturday and see how that flows in that atmosphere. These are precious settings to put these young kids in because we've got to prepare [for the future]."
This spring, Wilson has allowed just one run over 10 innings, all in relief. He's allowed nine hits while striking out nine and walking one.
"I think that I've learned a lot coming in relief," Wilson said. "I haven't done that before in professional baseball. That's been a huge learn, just for down the line, if that becomes the role that I play this year or for the rest of my career."
The biggest thing that has caught the Orioles' eye about Wilson is the uptick in his velocity. His fastball has been clocked at 93-94 mph consistently, and he even touched 95 on the radar gun.
Wilson said it's early in the season for him to be throwing so fast — he said his velocity usually picks up later in the season — but he attributes some of it to the adrenaline of being in his first big league camp.
Before he was able to throw a mid-90s fastball, Wilson had to get by on throwing 88-90 mph in his first two years in the minors, which may help him down the line.
"I really learned how to pitch, how to add and subtract, change planes," Wilson said. "I'm grateful for having those two years of having to pitch like that. I'm thankful to not be throwing like that [anymore] — knock on wood — but it forces you to learn the ins and outs of the game, to learn how to read hitters, how to read bats, how to change timing."
Wilson said several factors have led to the added speed on his fastball, including working with strength coaches, refining his delivery, being smarter about how he exerts himself and learning how to keep his arm healthy over the course of a long season.
He also said the weighted ball routine he began last year has been instrumental in his jump. He uses a variation of lighter balls, two ounces or something his bare hand, to help his arm speed. Heavier balls — six ounces, one pound and two pounds — have helped to build arm strength.
It all started to come together for Wilson last season. He went 4-0 with a 2.76 ERA in five April starts with Bowie. He also won his last five starts for the Baysox — pitching to a 2.65 ERA and going seven innings in four of those five outings — before earning a promotion to Triple-A, where he finished the season 4-3 with a 3.60 ERA. Over 28 total outings, Wilson posted 17 quality starts.
Now the Orioles want to see if Wilson can build on that success and begin to establish himself as a legitimate major league option, whether it's this season as a spot starter or potentially as a member of next year's rotation.
"That's why we're doing this," Showalter said. "It's who we are. We've got to have these next guys ready. By the end of the year, it's going to be hard to leave [Wilson] off [the roster]. He can throw it over. He's going to field runners. He's going to field his position. … He's a pitcher, not a thrower. But on a given night, if he's carrying that [fastball], he's gonna look pretty good."