By JAY COHEN, AP Sports Writer
MESA, Ariz. (AP) — For all the talk about the Chicago Cubs’ new-look bullpen, the biggest key to its success might be the return of Justin Wilson.
Not the Justin Wilson who struggled for the last couple months of last season. The one who pitched for the Detroit Tigers.
If Wilson finds his form, he would give manager Joe Maddon another left-handed option for high-leverage situations late in games. If Wilson struggles again, Maddon would have to employ him very carefully.
“It just permits us to dole out the work in a way that we should not get anybody overtly tired, so that’s what I look at,” Maddon said Monday. “But I mean, listen, you’ve seen good, I’ve heard good, you know, work-wise and the stuff that he’s been doing. They’re reporting back, he did something today that the guys are just raving about, so let’s see how it plays out.”
The 30-year-old Wilson has made two appearances so far this spring training, tossing a scoreless inning against Oakland and Cincinnati with two strikeouts total. He also sounds optimistic coming off the disappointing finish to last year.
“I’m very excited,” Wilson said. “I’m just excited to get going. Played well so far. Good vibe around here.”
Wilson began last season with Detroit and was widely regarded as the top reliever on the trade market after he posted a 2.68 ERA with 13 saves in 42 games with the lowly Tigers. He also had 55 strikeouts and 16 walks in 40 1/3 innings.
The Cubs were picking up speed in July when they got Wilson and veteran catcher Alex Avila from the Tigers for minor league infielders Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes and $250,000. An elated Wilson quickly joined his new team at Wrigley Field, but he was never quite able to establish himself with his new club.
He walked two, threw a wild pitch and yielded a run-scoring double to Arizona’s Jake Lamb in his debut with Chicago. He had a 6.75 ERA over his first seven games after the trade.
“A little bit of everything really,” he said when asked what went wrong. “Mainly it was inconsistency. That was probably the biggest thing. … You try to change things when you’re not going well as well. It was just a battle, kind of like an uphill battle the whole way. Just excited for a fresh start.”
Wilson showed glimpses of his potential down the stretch, but they were usually followed by some shaky outings. He had a 5.09 ERA in 23 games with the Cubs with 25 strikeouts and 19 walks in 17 2/3 innings.
Despite the tough finish, Chicago put him on the playoff roster for the first round of the playoffs and he retired the only two batters he faced against Washington. He was inactive for the NL Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Cubs’ bullpen faltered while the defending World Series champions were eliminated in five games.
Wilson’s absence was particularly noticeable when John Lackey made a rare relief appearance in Game 2 in Los Angeles and surrendered Justin Turner’s tiebreaking three-run homer with two outs in the ninth. Maddon was criticized for not going to All-Star closer Wade Davis at the time, but he might have approached the situation differently had Wilson played his way on the roster.
“Just want to feel and do what I did before I came over,” Wilson said.
The Cubs want the same thing. After the bullpen issues against Los Angeles, Chicago signed Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek in free agency and Davis departed for a big contract with Colorado. Morrow steps in at closer and Cishek will get some of the late-inning duties, but a rejuvenated Wilson could provide a big lift.
“It would be spectacular, obviously,” Maddon said. “He’s got closing ability. We’ve got several guys with that kind of ability. The matchups, the thing about him is he gets out righties really well, too. So you’ve got the lefty coming in that’s very tough on righties also.”
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap
More AP baseball: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)