FORT MYERS, Fla. – The focus this season will be on Alex Wimmers’ right arm, his pitching elbow, his repaired ligament. But to Joel Lepel, all you need to know about Wimmers is right there on his face.
“He’s got a smile again. He’s upbeat,” said Lepel, the Twins minor league field coordinator. “He’s excited to be out there, and you can see it right away.”
That’s because Wimmers, one of the best collegiate pitchers in the country when the Twins used the 21st pick in the 2010 draft on him, hasn’t been out there much since … well, since that draft. Four years into his professional career, the 25-year-old Cincinnati native has thrown only 77⅓ innings in the Twins farm system.
“It’s been stressful, yes. It’s been hard,” Wimmers said. “But I’ve got to stay positive and take the good things out of it. Find a way to build on it and make yourself stronger.”
If disappointment creates strength, Wimmers must be a superhero by now, because his career has been a crazy zigzag of promise and calamity, with plenty of waiting around mixed in, too.
His ascension to first-round status and a $1.3 million bonus, after twice being named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year at Ohio State, was a victory for his creativity and hard work. Stuck in the Buckeyes bullpen as a freshman, Wimmers came up with a bat-breaking changeup that made him, as the Twins scouting reports all said, a latter-day Brad Radke.
Wimmers gave up only one run in four outings after the draft, and his 0.57 ERA had Twins fans excited.
But the following April, in his Class A debut Wimmers suddenly went haywire. He threw 28 pitches, and more of them reached the backstop (five) than went through the strike zone (four). He faced six batters, walked them all, and was removed, not just from the game but from the Fort Myers roster.
After a summer spent trying to ditch the “yips” that were threatening his career, he returned in triumph, punctuating his recovery by pitching a no-hitter in his final start.
Any hopes that Wimmers was on his way to the majors, however, ended when he felt pain in his right elbow during his first start of 2012. The Twins prescribed months of rest in hopes he would recover, but in August, he gave in to the inevitable and had Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, requiring a year of rehab. A year of watching others play baseball, while he walked past the diamond and into the trainer’s room.
“Guys who are on rehab, it gets a little tough. We don’t forget them, but they feel forgotten sometimes,” Lepel said. “Alex is carrying himself in a whole different way now. He’s done a good job of keeping his head up, because it couldn’t have been easy.”
It wasn’t, even when he thought he was back. Last summer, Wimmers returned to pitch six times in the Gulf Coast League, but he had another setback in October when he needed another operation to relieve the radial nerve in his elbow.
“When I got that second surgery, I told myself I just had to keep going,” Wimmers said. “I love this game, and I still feel I can get people out. I just want a chance to do it.”
Said Twins assistant GM Rob Antony: “That’s probably the biggest key — he hasn’t given up. Obviously, he’s had some tough challenges, but we’re hoping he can regain his form from Ohio State.”
Wimmers has got that Buckeyes look about him this spring — he is finally healthy and pain-free again. And the changeup is back.
“Oh yeah. Oh yeah. It’s good. He pitched the other day and showed that good changeup again,” Lepel said. “It always has been his go-to pitch, and we’re trying to do some things with him to make him a more well-rounded pitcher.”
Wimmers just wants to be a healthy pitcher again.
“I’ve made a lot of progress, actually. The arm feels good now,” said Wimmers, who is likely to be assigned to Class AA New Britain at the end of the month. “I’ve still got to get my body back in shape, try to get my legs, back, shoulder, all that stuff, in shape for pitching. I haven’t done it in a while.”