The Taijuan Walker reclamation project has been fun, and interesting, and exciting, and uplifting, and a lot of things. But all good things must end. Wednesday’s start against the Padres will likely be the last time Walker dons the maritime insignia in 2020.
Let’s face it, when Jerry Dipoto signed Walker to a 1-year, $2 million deal in February, the best-case scenario, at least in the eyes of the front office, was to fix and him flip him for profit. There is no team option for 2021, and the chances he re-signs with the Mariners this winter are fairly slim considering the arms burgeoning on the big league club right now. Walker was always a pawn in the greater scheme of things, and that’s not a bad thing. Everybody wins here. Seattle took a risk, investing in damaged goods and Walker was able to revive his career this season. By all standards, this has been a very mutualistic relationship.
#Mariners RHP Taijuan Walker, 28, is drawing trade interest after back-to-back quality starts, including last night’s impressive win over the #Dodgers, as I reported on @MLBNetwork this morning. Free agent after the season, earning less than $400k for September.— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) August 20, 2020
There’s a lot to like about Taijuan Walker on the trade market, and he’s garnering a lot of traffic because of it. He’s only due $387,000 after August 31, but more importantly, his stuff is very much back.
Simply put, he’s straight up shoving right now.
The fastball is averaging 93.1 mph with the supplementary cutter diving through the zone at 85.5 mph. The split finger has shown better than previously in his career, and the curve, when deployed, has been an excellent get-me-over offering. Walker simply isn’t finding barrels, and that’s a huge indicator for future success as well.
In 434 pitches, the expected batting average (xBA) on balls in play is just .251, on par for the best years of his career. Better yet, his xwOBA currently sits at a healthy .326, the second-best mark of his career. Taijuan Walker is back. It makes sense teams would want his reliable arm in their rotation for the playoff push.
But the playoff push is different this year. Instead of the usual 9 or 10 starts a guy would make from the deadline on for his new team, Walker will only be able to make about 5. There’s simply not much time left in the season.
That being said, every game is of the utmost importance this year. Having a steady no. 4 starter to pillar your rotation down the stretch is invaluable in the toss-up games against division foes. Walker is a clear upgrade for some teams.
I think it’s time to set some goalpost expectations on Walker deals, and where those deals may eventually land Seattle’s 2010 top pick. Remember, any deal has to involve guys on a team’s 60-man roster, otherwise the return will be designated as a Player To Be Named Later (PTBNL).
First, let’s set the expectation for what a return might look like. And for that, we look back at a couple deals... the first from 2019.
#Reds reportedly acquire #Athletics No. 8 prospect Jameson Hannah in exchange for Tanner Roark. Here's a closer look at Hannah, the @Athletics' 2018 2nd-round #MLBDraft pick, on the A's new Top 30 Prospects list: https://t.co/jg2ANUmDvL pic.twitter.com/b3VuSooLJZ— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) July 31, 2019
When the Reds decided to move RHP Tanner Roark last season, he had just 2 months left on his reasonably affordable contract. Roark was 6-7 with a 4.24 ERA for Cincinnati, but had always been a reliable innings-eater. He’d pitch ten games for the Athletics, compiling a 4.58 ERA over 55 innings.
In return, the Reds netted the Athletics 8th overall prospect, outfielder Jameson Hannah. The Reds have a good farm system, not at the same level as Seattle, but Hannah landed just inside the Reds Top 15. A speed-first centerfielder, Hannah was a second round pick in 2018 who had fringy tools across the board. He’s similar to that of a guy like Joe Rizzo. He does everything okay, but doesn’t have one specific tool that stands out.
Here’s the thing. Seattle isn’t trading a guy with 10 starts left in his contract. They’re trading a guy with half of that and a lesser track record to boot. Roark is ol’ reliable. Walker is a guy you pray stays healthy for the stretch run.
On to the next example.
In 2018, the Yankees acquired RHP Lance Lynn from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for 1B/OF Tyler Austin and minor league RHP Luis Rijo. At the time, Lynn had a career 3.38 ERA over 6 seasons, but had also missed all of the 2016 season with Tommy John surgery and had far less encouraging peripherals upon his 2017 return (4.82 FIP, K% and velocity down). He wasn’t a flashy acquisition, but he was the steady arm on an expiring contract New York needed for the playoff push. His 5.10 ERA in Minnesota that year brought down his trade value just a smidge, but his velo has returned. He was due $4.8 million over the rest of his 1-year deal in 2018.
Austin was a pure bat guy who had exhausted his prospect status and was stuck behind myriad of better hitters. It was his way out of New York and his middling nature as a player. For the record, he ranked as the 12th best prospect in the Yankees system in 2017. He’d get plenty of opportunities with the Twins in 2018, but would finish the season with a .236 average and nine dingers. He’s bounced around the league ever since.
Rijo was just 18 years old when he was dealt. He was, in essence, a lottery ticket. To date, he’s absolutely dominated Rookie ball and Low-A ball, but is yet to pronounce himself as a premier prospect in the league. That may change once he gets significant innings under him in full season ball in 2021.
So there’s the blueprint. It’s largely unremarkable guys in return for short-term rentals like Walker. That being said, given the Mariners development of arms, they could be in the drivers seat for a few fun projects.
Without further ado, here’s what could happen.
The... ahem... New York Yankees
Yes, that’s right -- the New York Yankees. Everybody’s favorite trade mistress! Here’s the thing; the Mariners have been sellers, more or less, for the better part of two decades. The Yankees have been buyers for the better part of, well, forever. Thus, the marriage made in heaven. With James Paxton newly on the IL, and J.A. Happ appearing to be a shell of himself, New York could decide to bolster it’s rotation with Walker in the short-term. They do have internal options Michael King and Clarke Schmidt, though they’ve yet to give any indication they’re ready to hand the reins off to youth.
The Yankees have a few guys that I think fit the bill in a potential deal.
RHP Brooks Kriske is an interesting option as he’s already on New York’s 40-man roster and lacks the upside of some other guys in the organization. He’s likely a 40-man crunch casualty this winter and may be an excellent option for Seattle immediately.
First and foremost, Kriske is a reliever, and Seattle needs all the help they can get in that department. He has 5 controllable years ahead of him, but that’s not what you’re here for. Krikse has touched is generally 94-97 touching 98, possesses a sweeping slider and dabbles with a splitter that’s been especially effective against left-handed hitters. Kriske debuted this season for the Yankees, but hasn’t appeared in a game in 3 weeks.
Down at the alternate site, on guy sparks my interest. Daniel Alvarez, 24, is a big right-handed pitcher that’s gone in relief and has started on the farm for New York. He’s a strikeout pitcher with high spin rates on his fastball, although it generally sits 90-94 MPH in extended appearances. The curveball is a loopy offering at 80-83 and he has a decent changeup at 80. Alvarez could slot in as a long-guy right away for Seattle, or could be stretched out in the event of an injury.
Send Walker north of the border
The Blue Jays just make so much sense right now in trying to acquire starting pitching. They’re already down Nate Pearson with arm soreness and this weekend announced they’re shutting down Matt Shoemaker for at least 10 days. They’re currently in a playoff race and working with Julian Merryweather, Jacob Waguespack and Sam Gaviglio eating big innings... not exactly a recipe for ensured success.
Walker fits the fold beautifully and Toronto has plenty to offer.
I can’t start this conversation without RHP Hector Perez. The Blue Jays added Perez to their 40-man this winter to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, and now might be to the time to move him for a big time rental like Walker. Perez has primarily been a starter, but I think his future is in the bullpen. The fastball is 93-97, touching 99 with sink and ride depending on how the grip. It’s a definitive plus offering, maybe plus-plus in the ‘pen. He’s got a slider and curveball, both of which have flashed above average missing bats. The issue is he too often can’t find the strike zone with them.
Perez has gradually been sliding down the Blue Jays top 30 prospects lists over the past couple of seasons. There’s some definitive prospect fatigue here and considering the lack of command on his stuff, he seems like the perfect project piece for Seattle’s pitching development to sink it’s teeth into -- a la Yohan Ramirez.
Also at the alternate site, RHP Bryan Baker makes a lot of sense as well. Baker has a huge fastball and secondary stuff that’s lagging. He’d be another immediate option for Seattle’s bullpen and a fun project to watch over the next few years.
Finally, I threw out a trade idea the other day, suggesting the Mariners package Jake Fraley with Walker to acquire catcher Reese McGuire from the Jays. In this scenario, beings Fraley is now with the big league ball club, Dipoto may be able to wrangle McGuire and someone like Perez in the same deal.
Those Pesky Rays
Here’s the thing about the Rays; the Rays decide if they’re interested in exploiting you via trade and then simply do so. The team is chockfull of trade capital, but only when their analytics department deems the return sufficient. We don’t know what Tampa thinks of Walker, but if they’re interested enough in a 4- or 5-game rental, it’s always a fun trade partner.
Simply put, LHP Josh Fleming, 24, embodies everything that you, the reader, knows about Dipoto as a talent evaluator. A small school, 5th round pick in 2017, Fleming is a control-finesse pitcher. He’s a sinker-ball guy, sitting at 90-92/94 and can spot his heater anywhere he wants. He’s induces a ton of ground balls. Fleming’s got an average slider that was flashing 55 last year and an average changeup that’s far better suited to get lefties out than righties. He’s a bit of a lost breed in that he’s a lefty-specialist, though the blueprint is 100% there for a tantalizing acquisition for Seattle. Fleming is absolutely what the team wanted Nestor Cortes to be -- an effective long-man against left-heavy lineups.
I will continue to keep beating the drum for shortstop Lucious Fox as well. The Rays 26th ranked prospect, Fox is at the point where he’s starting to develop some prospect fatigue. With the likes of Willy Adames, Wander Franco, Vidal Brujan, Xavier Edwards, Greg Jones, Alika Williams and Taylor Walls all pushing the big league club for infield playing time, the glut of talent on the dirt needs to parse itself out. Fox is now 23 years old and represents, in my eyes, what Seattle would covet.
Fox is a high on-base guy that makes fairly weak contact despite his strong frame. He could certainly use a barrel path adjustment, but that’s besides the point here. Fox is one of the best athletes in Tampa Bay’s system and a premier defender. He’s a very good defensive shortstop with great hands and a plus arm. As much as I like Dylan Moore’s bat, I’m not so sure he’s a long-term option at shortstop if J.P. Crawford were to go down with an injury. Fox also has a ton of run at second base and third base after 2019, increasing his versatility across the diamond. He’s a shot in the dark on offense, but his floor is a high-performing defender who’s an asset in the field. I’ll buy those shares.
Skywalker to Hotlanta
As if we weren’t generous enough after allowing the Braves to enjoy some good ol’ fashioned Felix this spring, it would appear as though the Braves *might* be searching for another starting pitcher.
Feel free to speculate. Could be a trade being made to open a spot on 40-man roster for Ian Anderson. But that's just a guess. Might even be a trade for a starter, though it was thought that wouldn't happen for at least a few more days. But in this season? All bets are off. https://t.co/zqCzhGJXPj— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) August 24, 2020
We can’t be sure what’s going on here, but I’ll be damned if this story doesn’t get published and the Braves undercut the whole danged thing the same day. For posterity sake, we dive in...
This conversation, for me at least, starts and ends with one (1) Philip Pfeifer. A 28-year-old southpaw, Pfeifer is yet to debut for Atlanta, though he’s pushing for that shot at the Alternate Site right now.
Pfeifer is a low 90s fastball guy with a wicked, high-spin hook. Plagued by walks for most of his career, Pfeifer finally broke through in 2019 cutting enormously; just 42 in 133 innings of work. The 29th ranked prospect in Atlanta’s system, he started 18 contests last season, appearing in 30 games. Long-term, like Fleming, I think he’s a long lefty innings eater against stingy left-heavy lineups. He could certainly be stretched out in a pinch. Seattle should get 4 or 5 good years out of him, all cheap and controllable.
A little deeper down the rabbit hole, the Braves 28th ranked prospect, shortstop Vaughn Grissom, is a player that’s always enticed me. An 11th round pick last season, Grissom has a ton of thunder in his bat provided from a 6-foot-3 frame. The hit tool lags behind, but it’s impact power. He’s certainly not the defender Fox is, and he may have to move off the position, but Grissom’s bat is enticing enough to let it do the talking on its way up. The arm is more than strong enough for a corner outfield spot or third base if the hit tool dictates the fit. Just 19-years-old, he’s a fun project and would be one of the Mariners better infield prospects on the farm.
Frankly, there’s a number of guys that make a lot of sense for the Mariners. Here’s a few more guys I had tabbed as excellent targets in the Walker sweepstakes.
Some guys that I think make sense as 1 for 1 deals in the AL East?#BlueJays— Joe (@JoeDoyleMiLB) August 21, 2020
-RHP Jackson McClelland
-RHP Bryan Baker
-RHP Curtis Taylor#Yankees
-RHP Tanner Myatt
-RHP Freicer Perez
-LHP Ken Waldichuk
-OF Brandon Lockridge#Rays
-RHP Drew Strotman
-RHP Simon Rosenblum-Larson
The trade deadline looms large, just one week away. Teams have until 1 pm EST next Monday to make any deals. Seattle figures to be one of the more active teams, and Walker figures to be one of the more high-profile targets available.