Tigers’ Will Vest looks to work his way back to majors after Rule 5 stint with Mariners

Detroit News

Some moments don’t necessarily diminish with time.

Will Vest appreciates that the moment, and the imprint, of July 11, at Safeco Field in Seattle, will be locked in, always, as vividly as he shared it during a phone conversation last week.

Vest was asked to see manager Scott Servais minutes after the Mariners had lost a Sunday afternoon game, 7-1, to the Angels. Being invited to the manager’s office is typically an exercise in anxiety for any player, let alone a rookie MLB pitcher.

This was particularly scary timing: It was now, officially, the All-Star break.

Waiting for him were Servais and pitching coach Pete Woodworth.

“They voiced that they liked me,” Vest recalled last week, as the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens got ready for a game at Nashville. “They said they didn’t anticipate this conversation happening. But it was kind of where they were at — two games out of a wild card (playoff spot), and a couple of guys were coming off the (injured list) the following week and they had a good amount of big-league time.”

And, so, Will Vest was no longer a Mariners pitcher after pitching 35 innings in 32 games with a 6.17 ERA. He was no longer in big-league baseball. He was a Rule 5 draft pick who was being returned to his former team, the Tigers, who were installing him at Triple-A Toledo.

Gone, for now, was that sublime experience known as The Show: big-league ballparks and clubhouses, first-class travel, the best in hotels, ample daily meal money — and MLB paychecks.

Vest said his goodbyes to teammates he had been bonding with since spring camp in Arizona. He went back to the apartment he shared with his wife, Hailey, across from the Seahawks’ home, Lumen Field, and gave her the news that beautiful Seattle no longer would be their home — nor his place of employment.

And, well, you can imagine … This was a moment straight from baseball’s trail of tears.

“I’d say the toughest part was just the relationships you build with guys,” Vest said. “I was kind of with those guys basically every day since the beginning of spring training, so that was the hardest thing — seeing the guys I made friendships with, thinking that part is now gone.

“Plus, not knowing the future.”

It wasn’t long before he got another call — from Tigers general manager Al Avila. No one knows more than a GM that there can be wickedly fast mood swings, from euphoria, to crushing heartbreak, when you are what Vest was: a Rule 5 draft pick, swooped up suddenly on the last day of December’s Winter Meetings, with the promise of immediate big-league life.

Avila told him he understood the disappointment, but that the Tigers were aching to give Vest a full shot at re-appearing in the big leagues — all because the Tigers had been so enthused about his progress last fall, when the Mariners also took notice during instructional camp at Lakeland, Florida.

Rule 5 picks, of course, are always gambles for MLB teams and always something of a perilous thrill-ride for players. They deal not only with opportunity but with the dread that drafting teams can, in a heartbeat, decide to return them to their original club if the teams no longer can afford to carry the poached player on their big-league active roster for the entire ensuing season.

Most of the time, Rule 5 players are in fact returned. They qualify for the Rule 5 sweepstakes under specific conditions that most often follow this route: If a player has been in the minors for four seasons and isn’t yet on his team’s 40-man roster, the player is free to be plucked — with a proviso that they work in the big leagues all of the next year.

That’s a major jump, which doesn’t often work out, although the Tigers have been Exhibit A beneficiaries in their recent Rule 5 pickups of Akil Baddoo and Victor Reyes.

Vest’s plan now is clear: He must pitch well enough at Toledo, or wherever he’s stationed on the Tigers farm, to gain Detroit. That goal probably begins with his fastball.

It slipped a bit during his time with the Mariners, averaging 93 mph when last fall he had been throwing 96 and 97, with a “slurve” and good change-up.

“I think along with the Mariners and myself,” Vest said, “I think — I don’t know what the word is I’d use — disappointed, or surprised — where my fastball was this year compared with (instructional league). It wasn’t the same. I wasn’t getting the same life on it, or the ride. It was turning more into a sinker as the velo went down.

“Especially, with my arsenal, it kind of thrives off my fastball. When I consistently run it up to 95, 96, my arsenal plays best. But when it’s down, it takes away from my off-speed that much more. And I think that was the biggest thing that hurt me this year. I wasn’t getting the run.”

Vest wishes he had an answer for why his heater slowed. He and the Tigers coaching staff now are into a full forensic investigation for why a right-handed pitcher, 6-foot, 180-plus pounds, has a dragging four-seamer.

“I didn’t have access with the Mariners to all the videos I had earlier,” Vest said. “All year, I would look at (2021) video and try to remember what I was doing differently from last year, but I didn’t have a lot to go off of.

“The first thing I did when I got here (Toledo) was get all the video and metrics, and highlight the differences, and trade game plans with (staff) on how to get back to throwing the way I was.

“I think I’ve already made strides. I can already see some of the metrics are back to where they were. I think in these outings now I can kind of work toward being the pitcher I was at instructs.”

The re-acclimation to Tigers life is, in fact, getting better. Vest pitched in Saturday night’s game against Nashville and had a clean, single-inning stint: no hits, no walks, one strikeout. It dropped his Toledo ERA to 4.76 after five games and 5.2 innings.

It is, of course, natural for pitchers — particularly relief pitchers — to have a pogo-stick experience along the way, bounding high, with a brand of exhilaration Vest was feeling last autumn, and then, just as quickly, to be left wondering where the magic went.

But because he turned 26 in June, there is time, lots of it. The Tigers consider Vest to yet be one of their upper-tier bullpen prospects who only benefited from his time in Seattle. Vest, a 12th-round pick in 2017 from Stephen F. Austin State University, happens to agree that his Mariners stint was a godsend in what it taught him about big-league basics.

“I wouldn’t say it was a night-and-day jump for me, as far as going from the minor leagues to the big leagues,” he said. “Yeah, there’s better talent there, and they’re a lot more consistent. But I know now I have the confidence in my stuff that I can get big-league outs.

“I proved that the first couple of months of the season,” said Vest, who struck out Evan Longoria on a 95-mph swinging fastball in his first duel with a big-league hitter. “The tough part about being a Rule 5 is that you don’t have the luxury of time if you’re going through a rough time.

“But so many things I learned up there — about myself, about how to pitch, and how to get big-league hitters out.

“Some things definitely will stick.”

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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