The scuffling Seattle Mariners are getting a head start on their plans for next season by promoting top prospect Taijuan Walker from Triple-A Tacoma to start Friday's game against Houston, according to Shannon Drayer of ESPN 710.
Walker, who just turned 21 on August 13, is just the first of several prospects that is expected to emerge through the pipeline for a Seattle team that is loaded with pitching talent in the upper levels of the minors.
This has been another disappointing season for the Mariners, who made several moves in the offseason hoping to upgrade a historically bad offense only to stand at 59-73 after a blowout loss against Texas on Wednesday.
In addition to being Seattle's top prospect, Walker joins other elite arms like New York's Zack Wheeler and Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole to debut this year. As promising as those two studs look, Walker has the stuff to be the best of the bunch.
Here is everything you need to know about Taijuan Walker and why his call-up is a big deal.
Note: Scouting grades are based on the 20-80 scale where 50 is average, 60 is plus, etc.
If you were to build a prototype for what you want in a potential No. 1 starter, Taijuan Walker would hit all the marks. He has a very athletic 6'4", 210-pound frame and carries it well, with the potential to add a little more bulk down the line.
On top of that, Walker knows how to use that size and frame to his advantage on the mound. He has incredible balance throughout his delivery, as you can see in the video, which allows him to stay on top of the ball and drive it down in the zone.
What I love about Walker is that delivery, especially at such a young age. He repeats it so well, finding the same release point and getting great leverage out of each throw.
As my fellow B/R prospect guru, Mike Rosenbaum, noted in his Midseason Top 50, Walker's ability to adjust has been a huge difference between this season and 2012.
After an up-and-down 2012 season at Double-A, Walker’s command and overall execution of his electric arsenal has developed rapidly during his second tour of the level. Beyond the obvious improvements in his stuff and command, the right-hander’s ability to make adjustments this season has separated him from every other pitching prospect.
For a pitcher, everything starts with mechanics. Knowing your body and using it to your advantage gives you an edge over the opposition.
But you don't get to be a top-10 prospect in all of baseball on mechanics alone.
Walker's arsenal is as good as you will find on any right-handed pitcher in the minor leagues, with the possible exception of Arizona's Archie Bradley. And even in that case, I would argue that Walker has more tools at his disposal even if Bradley's fastball-curveball combination grades out a little higher than any two pitches Walker has.
As is the case with any pitcher, Walker's ultimate success or failure will depend on the fastball. Fortunately for the 21-year-old, he has a really good one.
Using that loose delivery, ridiculous arm speed and very good arm action, Walker generates some of the easiest 93-96 mph velocity you will see. The ball jumps out of his hand and will occasionally have late movement.
Backing up the heater is a plus cutter that Walker has really honed over the last year. It is a legitimate MLB pitch right now with low-90s velocity and tremendous glove-side movement to chew up a lot of bats.
The third bullet in Walker's chamber is a curveball that can look like at times like a dominant offering or in others, play as a fringe-average pitch, depending on how his feel for it is on a particular day. When things are going right, the curve is a 12-6 hammer with steep two-plane break that will sit in the mid 70s.
On those days when Walker doesn't have a feel for the curveball, it will lack shape and bounce in the dirt well before crossing the plate.
Finally, Walker will show a changeup on occasion. Rosenbaum and I disagree on the effectiveness of the pitch. Here is what he wrote about it: "Changeup has come a long way over the past season; looks to be a third viable above-average offering."
He doesn't have the confidence in the change to throw it more than a handful of times in a start. It also lags behind his other pitches because Walker doesn't get enough separation between the change and fastball, and it is also tends to be straight and hittable.
Overall, though, it is hard to argue with a 21-year-old who has a 70-grade fastball, 60 cutter and 50-55 curveball.
As is the case with any great prospect, Walker does have some holes in his game that will have to be ironed out in the big leagues.
The biggest issue Walker has is fastball command. He has a great, explosive heater, but can have some problems finishing his delivery out front, which causes the fastball to sail on him. He's walked 57 in 141.1 innings this season, including 27 in 57.1 Triple-A innings.
Because the velocity is so good and Walker is able to stay around the zone with the heater, he can get away with average command this season, but adjustments will have to be made in camp next season before he's ready to showcase his true talents.
As things stand right now, Walker doesn't have a true third pitch to get big-league hitters out. His fastball and cutter will play right away. Because the cutter is so good, it is hard not to see the young phenom getting a lot of outs.
The curveball is the pitch to keep a close eye on, just because the disparity between what it is and what it can be is so great. If he can find any kind of consistent release point with the breaking ball and have the confidence to use it as a put-away pitch, watch out.
I would also like to see Walker implement the changeup a little more often, even if it is just as a show-me pitch to keep hitters from sitting on the fastball and cutter.
Finally, The Ceiling
All of the pieces are there for Walker to become a true No. 1 starter in the big leagues, but projecting that and the player actually living up to that billing are two entirely different things.
I love the package Walker presents, from the work-horse frame to the raw stuff. There is no doubt that he has what it takes to stand alongside Felix Hernandez atop the Mariners rotation for a long time.
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