Wilk eager to be with Tigers after unusual winter

Wilk eager to be with Tigers after unusual winter

Wilk eager to be with Tigers after unusual winter
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Adam Wilk is a throwback to a bygone era of ballplayer. Yet depending on how the Tigers' rotation sweepstakes shakes out, he might be just what Detroit needs right now.

In an era when the notion of offseason jobs for players seems antiquated, unless it's winter ball, Wilk spent his winter working in the athletic department at his alma mater. It isn't that he needs the money to get by; he doesn't exactly have a mountain of expenses or a lavish lifestyle at age 24.

"I just figured the money I made was gas money," Wilk said.

It isn't exactly a heavy-lifting gig for him. Wilk isn't working on a dairy farm, as former Tigers reliever Terry Pearson did before he made his Major League debut a decade ago. But as long as Wilk was making the commute across town to work out at Long Beach State, and he enjoyed the campus, he might as well work there, too.

So while the 49ers were off and running with their men's basketball team, reaching a new level of popularity at what has primarily been a baseball school, Wilk worked in their ticket sales department, distributing tickets and passes before games. It was a good way for him to stay involved at his school.

For him, it was also a good way to stay active during the winter once he realized he would be staying home for most of it. After making an impression on the club during a midseason stint in the bullpen, and after the Tigers decided he would be part of the mix for the fifth-starter spot, the club had some discussion about sending Wilk to winter ball.

In the end, the combination of an August elbow injury and a relatively long year between Detroit and Triple-A Toledo provided good reasons against it. So for the first month of Wilk's offseason, he rested his arm and took a step back.

"Once the World Series ended, I just turned baseball off for a solid two months, just to get a mental break," he said. "And I'm excited to be back here."

The first month was focused on him strengthening his left elbow. From there, he went into a strengthening program that bulked up his 6-foot-2 frame from a listed weight of 181 to around 190 pounds.

Come mid-December, he was ready to pick up a ball again. And he was fired up about the opportunity that awaited him.

In an organization that boasts no shortage of power arms, Wilk is the exception, maybe the biggest one of the bunch. He will not fire 90-plus-mph fastballs past hitters, but he'll sneak a pitch on the corner. He'll challenge a batter, but he'll do something subtle to make a hitter pay for it.

It might be a change in speed, or it might a little trick with his arm angle. In a way, it's a throwback to the deceptive pitchers of old. But if it works, it'll keep a hitter from solid contact and earn Wilk a quick out.

Wilk's catcher, Alex Avila, has a modern comparison. He thinks of Mark Buehrle -- not necessarily in quality, but in style.

"He's very deceptive," Avila said. "He's kind of a herky-jerky motion. The main thing is he uses the change of speeds really well. He throws his fastballs at different speed and he throws his changeup really well. ...

"Guys like him, you swing and you think you're right on it, and it's a little dribbler to shortstop or something."

Wilk has walked just 45 batters over 343 2/3 professional innings, including 14 over 102 2/3 innings at Triple-A Toledo last year. His ratio of strikeouts to walks as a Mud Hen was better than 5-to-1, and his WHIP ratio kept low at 1.16.

That's what Tigers manager Jim Leyland saw in Wilk last spring, when the then-non-roster invitee somehow stuck around until the last days of roster cuts. As much as Leyland raves about the imposing arms in camp, he's looking forward to seeing what Wilk has in store.

"I think Adam Wilk is a very interesting guy," Leyland said Wednesday. "He's smart enough to do what he has to do. He's not just a soft-tosser. He's a student of pitching. He got his feet a little bit wet and he had his moments."

Wilk is no longer the surprise candidate, but he's no longer green, either. He's a throwback, but he isn't a relic. He learned from what he went through last season, and after an old-fashioned kind of offseason, he's ready to show what he picked up from his first big league stint.

"It's a different game. At this level, if we make mistakes, they hit them," Wilk said. "But the biggest thing I learned, I think, was getting over the awe factor.

"I've been through a little bit. I understand now what it's like to be a big leaguer. I know what it takes. Now it's time to go to work."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.