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40 in 40: Taijuan Walker

As we approach spring training, we’ll be profiling every player on the 40-man roster in our 40-in-40 series. The essays will appear in no particular order. First up is Taijuan Walker.

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One hundred and eighteen strikeouts to seventeen walks. That's how Taijuan Walker closed out 2015. And to say "closed out" is misleading. That's his final 20 starts. Fun to say, isn't it? One hundred and eighteen strikeouts to seventeen walks.

Deciding where to start on Taijuan Walker is difficult, but that feels like a fair jumping-off point. Finding stretches, anecdotes and numbers that point to future success has never been difficult with the hard-throwing righty. We know the potential is there, as that run above and others before it have indicated—but the time comes for every ballplayer, every person, to turn potential into reality.

While it's somewhat difficult to decide where to start on Walker, it's this point that makes it sensible to start our 40 in 40 series on the Mariners' roster with Walker. This team has several characters upon which the season could hinge—volatile talents from whom a big step forward, or step back back, could be the difference.

With Walker, that hypothetical progression may be the most tantalizing.

Walker, now a couple years removed from being one of the top prospects in the game, will play the majority of the 2016 season at 23 years old. It's easy to forget just how young that is, and how difficult it is for a starter to be good at that age.

Remember Walker's 2015. It was solid, but not amazing. There were games when you could see it all working, and games where none of it was. He took an important step forward, but it's obvious there were steps left untaken.

Yeah, that was the fifth-best season by a starter his age or younger last year—topped only by Noah Syndergaard, Lance McCullers, Jose Fernandez and Carlos Rodon in fWAR. That season, that decent-but-not-dominant season, actually lands in the top 40 of all 22-and-under seasons in the past decade. Now, it's easy to forget how difficult it is to succeed at that age because Felix Hernandez has three of those top 40 seasons.

That list is flush with names that went on to do a lot more, but also plenty who did not. So now it's up to Walker to determine which way he's going to go—just as it's up to the Mariners to determine which way they're going to go. Will it be the big step forward we've been waiting for, or more of the same?

And Walker's such an interesting case, because while he represents the previous regime's biggest failing—unrealized potential—there's still time for that potential to be realized under Jerry Dipoto’s player development system.

This type of thing does happen, one front office making good on what the previous guys left in the cupboard. Sandy Alderson's Mets just rode a rotation that included Jacob DeGrom, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz, all Omar Minaya draft picks, to a pennant. Like those Mets, Walker will need to continue his development under a new regime, as even with 37 big league starts, he is hardly a finished product.

For much of the first part of 2015, Walker rode a heavy fastball/changeup mix to a level of success. But it's going to take more for him to be the starter we'd like to see him be. In early August, I wrote on Walker's increased use of a 'new' curveball. It was a trend that continued through the end of 2015 but, while the pitch mix changed, he was never as good as he was in June—immediately after he first started throwing the pitch, but not throwing it much.

But that gets into gritty details that are best saved for another time.

Walker needs to get better, just as a number of Mariners players need to get better—just as a number of Mariners players should get better. In many cases, the M’s are banking on regression; with Walker, it's legitimate progression. As Mariners fans, we've been waiting for what never came, what we hoped would, winning on the back of talented young players.

If this team is going to win, and win a lot, it won't be solely because of the young, talented players, not in the way we once envisioned. But it's obvious young talent matters enormously in this game, and if the Mariners can find some, it'll make a step towards relevance all the easier.

As fans, we understand the necessity of these, particularly with an older team.

Was Felix Hernandez's 2015 a warning sign, or will he go back to being The King? Can Hisashi Iwakuma be the guy the Mariners need him to be, as often as they need him to be it? If there's any doubt there, and there is doubt there, the Mariners need another guy. Not just another guy, but something more.

Maybe it's Nate Karns or Wade Miley or James Paxton. Could be. But Walker is the guy most are looking at, for good reason.

Also, probably for less sensible reasons.

I wrote about this once before, on Kyle Seager a couple years ago, but as fans we tend to project ourselves onto the athletes and teams we follow. It's part of life to think you're always just a break away, that sometime soon you're going to capitalize on all that pent up potential. Better times are around the bend—they have to be.

Taijuan Walker has embodied that ideal for a long time—just as Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero, Michael Pineda, Brad Miller and many others did before him. Unlike them, Walker still has time to make good on it, to show Mariners fans what life is like on the other side of that crucial turn.

It's going to take more than him. There's a universe where Taijaun Walker hurls a five-win season in 2016 on a 79-win Mariners team.

But in a time when most everyone's worried about a contention window slamming shut, Walker is the type who could throw it wide open. And that's pretty important when it hasn't opened at all yet.

This 2016 club isn't going to be the best version of Dipoto's Mariners. At least, it likely isn't what he envisions when he imagines his ideal roster. This version is going to require a little luck, some surprises and a few steps forward.

As you look up and down this roster, as we'll all do over the coming weeks and months, it’s difficult to find a more important step forward than the one the Mariners are looking for from Taijuan Walker.