Late in spring training, Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish made a prediction.
“I told people, ‘Kevin Whelan is a guy we’re probably going to need,’” Parrish said. “By the time the season got rolling, we needed him — and we needed him to fill an important role.”
Parrish’s prediction has come true as Whelan has taken over as the Hens’ closer. He has pitched in 16 games since joining Toledo in mid-April and has a 2-0 record with nine saves and a 1.37 ERA entering Tuesday night.
Whelan’s nine saves are tied for fourth-most in the IL, and he has struck out 23 while walking only seven in 19 2/3 innings.
AT THE PLATE: Kevin Whelan
Parrish said having a veteran closer like 30-year-old Texas native has helped stabilize the Hens bullpen.
“He’s a guy that you can count on to come back from a rough outing and get the job done the next day,” Parrish said. “He’s done it before. And he allows us to use other guys for multiple innings because, if they go up to the big leagues, that’s going to be their role.
“He’s a guy who gives us a chance to win some games down here while the other guys get their innings in a set-up role.”
While this is Whelan’s first year with the Mud Hens, it is not his first season as a Tigers farmhand. Detroit originally drafted Whelan in the fourth round of the 2005 draft, then traded him to the Yankees after the 2006 season in the Gary Sheffield deal.
“It was kind of a shock for me to get traded — and I was traded the day before my wedding,” Whelan said. “On top of that, getting traded for somebody like Gary Sheffield was really something.”
Whelan spent the next six seasons in the Yankees organization, earning a two-game callup to New York in 2011. The next year arm surgery ended his season early — and led to uncertainty entering 2013.
“I felt like I had just started to figure some things out,” Whelan said. “Then I had the surgery, and I knew it was going to be hard to find a team to sign me.
“At the start of last year it was just 10 months after surgery. I never felt I was 100 percent healthy. And that’s when a lot of clubs saw me.”
Last season Whelan pitched for Louisville and went 3-3 with six saves and a 4.97 ERA. His numbers, combined with a drop in velocity because of the surgery, kept other teams from signing him this off-season.
Except for Detroit, which offered him a minor-league contract just before spring training began.
“They knew what I was before surgery,” Whelan said. “I thought the Tigers would be able to see where I was compared to last year and compare me to who I was before the surgery.
“Last year was tough. My wife and I talked about it, and I said that I didn’t want my last year to be a season where I wasn’t 100 percent. ”
Whelan obviously was not handed a job in spring training, and he said that was a good thing.
“I have hit some bumps in the road and dealt with some injuries, and that has helped me realize that nothing in this game is handed to you,” he said. “Sometimes you have to check yourself [in the mirror].”
A.J. Sager, the former Mud Hens pitching coach who was Whelan’s first pro pitching coach at West Michigan in 2005, said Whelan is starting to return to form.
“He’s had good velocity and a short-arm motion that allows the ball to get on the hitter pretty quickly,” Sager said. “And his split-finger is a good pitch for getting outs with two strikes.”
The combination has made Whelan one of the Mud Hens most effective relievers. The right-hander said he doesn’t worry about whether it will be enough to earn him a second promotion to the major leagues.
“I try to take it one day at a time,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. If I worry about what is going to happen a week, a month, a year, or five years down the road, I’m not focused on what I need to do today.
“Whatever happens in the future, I know God has a plan for me.”
AT THE PLATE WITH KEVIN WHELAN
■ Name: Kevin Whelan
■ Position: Pitcher
■ Ht./Wt.: 5-11/205
■ Hometown: Kerrville, Texas
■ Age: 30
■ Family: Wife Adria; Son Gavin (6), daughter Juliana (1)
■ Favorite way to spend time away from the field: Hanging out with my family, hunting and fishing.
■ Baseball player you admired growing up: Ken Griffey, Jr., and Billy Wagner.
■ Favorite sport other than baseball: College or NFL football. In Texas everyone loves football.
■ Favorite music: Country. My favorite artist is George Strait.
■ Favorite meal: Chicken fried steak and okra.
■ Favorite beverage: I always have water with me.
■ Favorite movie: Eight Seconds
■ Favorite TV show: Game of Thrones
■ Do you have a Twitter account? No.
■ Person you most admire: My dad, Charley.
■ If you could meet any person who would it be? The one time I was in awe was when I got to meet Muhammed Ali. That was something special that I would really enjoy again.
■ Top sports moment: My first call-up [to the major leagues] with the Yankees. Hopefully my top moment hasn’t come yet and I get called up again.
■ Baseball superstitions: When I was younger I was more superstitious, but I learned none of that stuff is going to change the way I perform on the field.
■ Something nobody knows about you: I own a wine importing company called Ramirez Vino Imports with my father-in-law, and my father and I own a large ranch where we bring companies in for exotic hunts.