The Mariners have had some struggles of late with their starting pitching at the big league level. And starting pitching just so happens to be the strength of their farm, particularly after all of the promotions that happened earlier this season. The unquestioned jewel of the organization remains one of the most highly-regarded arms across baseball; 21-year-old right-hander Taijuan Walker.
Walker has, of course, been on the lips of prospect experts and Mariners-future-dare-to-dreamers for a few years now, but after a somewhat lackluster summer a season ago -- in which we saw Walker post the seventh worst ERA and a 4.04 FIP in the Southern League -- and a repeat assignment to Double-A Jackson to start the 2013 season, there were some who started to question what the long-term prognosis for Taijuan would be. There was no debating that he had top-notch stuff, but could he live up to the potential superstar and top-of-the-rotation label that was thrust on him at such a young age or would he prove to be yet another in the ever-growing list of cautionary tales and example of problems with counting one's eggs before they hatch?
As we are nearing the end of the minor league season, those eggs still aren't quite hatched, but it is looking more and more like Taijuan Walker is primed to be a Blue Ribbon winner for the Mariners.
The former 43rd overall pick in the 2010 draft started a bit slowly in 2013, again exhibiting what we could label "troubling command". But he ended up righting himself and breezing through Southern League hitters, earning a promotion to Triple-A Tacoma well before his 21st birthday. Since the year started, he's refined his curveball, added a dominating cut fastball and improved the command of each of his pitches, doing wonders for his efficiency. He now boasts career minor league marks of 9.6 SO/9 and only 7.4 H/9 and he's increased his innings total, posted a strong 3.85 FIP as one of the youngest players in the PCL and trimmed his walks nicely again, too. After having a BB/9 of 4.5 or worse in nine of his 25 starts in 2012, Walker has just three in his last 18 here in 2013, and two of those have come in his last two Tacoma starts, where the weather conditions have been abysmal, at best.
I was texting with Jason Cole of Baseball Prospectus on Wednesday while he was in attendance for Walker's start in Round Rock and from his view, the final line gives no inclination of how that start actually went for him before the field turned into a mud pit that would've rivaled Woodstock (ask your parents, kids). Cole had him up to 98 with the fastball and said that all three of his secondaries were generating swings-and-misses. Jason has an extended video of Walker's start here that is a treat if you haven't seen much of him.
It's easy for Seattle fans to get excited hearing about Taijuan and watching clips like that, but Cole doesn't have biases like most of us do, and he offered me this take on Walker, who he's now seen three times this season:
"He has improved, that's obviously a promising sign. We all know about the elite fastball; it looks like he's playing catch in the mid-90s. The command has jumped forward. His cutter is still an easily plus, if not better, pitch. At the end of the day, Walker should end up with two dominant pitches (FB/CT) and two usable ones (CB/CH), and if the command continues to develop, that may be enough to make him a No. 2 starter."
Of course, many Mariners fans would like to see that process of Walker becoming the club's future No. 2 starter this season. Like, right now. But Seattle is being smart in their handling of the young phenom. They're taking it slow, letting him learn in the minors, work through tough stretches and build his confidence. And you know what? There is nothing wrong with that. Taking their time here is a good thing.
It wasn't that long ago that the Kansas City Royals rushed their former high school draftee top pitching talent to the majors, and Zack Greinke rewarded them with a 5.00 ERA, a .333 winning percentage and some mental meltdowns over parts of three years before being sent back to the minor leagues to get himself right. It worked, and he's been very good since, but the Royals didn't need to rush Greinke back in 2004, just like Seattle doesn't need to rush Walker now.
Walker figures to be a very real option for the big league rotation next spring, and at the very least he'd be just a short drive away in Tacoma, meaning he would still be all but assured of making his MLB debut for Seattle less than four years after being drafted out of high school. That isn't a bad route to take for the M's at all.
Letting him refine his craft and hone that command in the minors for a few more starts this season while working to better his secondary offerings and mental approach to the game will help Taijuan Walker and the Seattle Mariners in the long run. Having a more complete base to work with as well as having those lessons learned from the ups and downs helps, too.
Walker has the goods to Go the Distance for the Mariners. But I'd rather he not fire up his big league engine until 2014.