It’s been a hectic past few months for Taijuan Walker.
In September (well, technically Aug. 30), Walker—who is widely considered the Seattle Mariners’ top prospect, as well as one of the top-ranked pitching prospects in baseball headed into the 2014 season—made his major league debut. By early December, the 21-year-old right-hander was the subject of trade rumors as the Mariners explored a deal for Tampa Bay’s David Price.
However, in spite of the swirling rumors, the trade for Price never transpired, as the Mariners quickly backed off their presumed willingness to include Walker in a hypothetical deal.
But after months of uncertainty surrounding Walker’s immediate future in the organization, new Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon now expects the right-hander to open the 2014 season in the team's starting rotation.
According to Robert Emrich of MiLB.com:
McClendon declared Friday that the team's top prospect is expected to be part of the Mariners' Opening Day roster.
"I'd be very disappointed if he's not [in the rotation]," he said.
So, what can be expected from Walker if he does crack the Opening Day rotation?
Selected by the Mariners in the supplemental first round of the 2010 draft, Walker has everything one looks for in a future ace. At 6’4” and 210 pounds, the right-hander is an outstanding athlete with a fluid delivery, quick arm and exceptional stuff.
After an up-and-down age-19 campaign in 2012 at Double-A Jackson, Walker’s control and execution of his electric arsenal developed rapidly during his second tour of the level last season.
The 21-year-old began the 2013 season by mastering the Southern League, posting a 2.46 ERA and a 96-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 84 innings at Jackson, and he ultimately earned a promotion to Triple-A Tacoma in late June.
Despite the fact that he was one of the younger pitchers at the level, Walker held his own with a 3.61 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 57.1 innings in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
Even though he had logged a career-high 141.1 innings between both minor league levels, the Mariners still decided to offer their top prospect a taste of the major leagues as a September call-up.
Suffice it to say that Walker responded favorably to the challenge.
Making his debut against the Astros on Aug. 30, Walker tossed five solid innings to capture his first major league victory. The right-hander allowed one unearned run on two hits and a walk while notching a pair of strikeouts, and he threw 43 of his 70 pitches for a strike in the outing.
Success didn’t come as easily for Walker in his follow-up start in Kansas City on Sept. 4, as he was tagged for four earned runs on four hits but still completed his scheduled five innings. He also recorded a pair of walks and strikeouts in the outing.
Walker benefited from facing the Astros a second time in his final start of the year on Sept. 9, as the promising right-hander allowed two earned runs on five hits and a walk with eight strikeouts over five innings.
Overall, Walker registered a 3.60 ERA, .204 opponent batting average and 12-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 15 innings spanning three starts.
At 6'4" and 210 pounds, the 21-year-old is a top-notch athlete with highly projectable talent, and he’s shown the ability to handle a sizable workload throughout his young career.
Walker's fastball explodes out of his hand and consistently registers between 93-96 mph, and he’ll dial it up to 97-98 on occasion. The Mariners introduced a cutter into his arsenal in 2012, and he’s quickly adopted a feel for the pitch, throwing it in the low-90s with excellent slicing action to his glove side.
Walker’s curveball is still inconsistent and leaves something to be desired, though it has good shape and downward bite when he’s on.
As reflected by the above graphic, which covers Walker’s three starts in the majors last season, his overall inconsistency with the pitch stemmed from a varying release point.
When he would get on top of the pitch and achieve a higher arm slot, it featured excellent pace and shape, not to mention sharper biting action in and around the zone. However, when he failed to achieve said arm slot, the offering had significantly less shape and, therefore, less vertical movement.
Finally, his changeup has come a long way over the past year and could surpass initial projections with further development, though it’s still a fringe-average offering at the present.
The Year Ahead
While Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are locked in as the Mariners’ No. 1 and 2 starters for the 2014 season, the rest of the team’s starting rotation is likely to be decided during spring training.
As of now, the Mariners have six pitchers competing for the final three spots in the rotation: Walker, James Paxton, Brandon Maurer, Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi. However, that could change in a hurry should the team sign one of the remaining big-name free-agent pitchers such as Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez.
In order for Walker to both make the Opening Day roster and stick in the major leagues next season, he will need to show improved control compared to his 2013 campaign (particularly his time spent at Triple-A). Walker certainly has the raw stuff to be effective and hold his own at the highest level—as he demonstrated last September—but he still lacks the efficiency needed to work deep into games.
Expectations must be tempered if Walker wins a spot in the Mariners’ Opening Day rotation next spring, as it’s important to remember that he’s far from a finished prospect and will be forced to make adjustments on the fly against the game’s best hitters.
The three main statistical projection models (Steamer, Oliver and ZIPS) each suggest that Walker’s performance will be up and down next season, which makes sense considering the aforementioned concerns about his control and lack of polish.
Here’s a look at each projection:
Though the numbers don’t exactly jump off the page and imply that Walker will face some form of team-imposed innings limit, they should be good enough to allow him to stick at the back end of the Mariners’ rotation for the duration of the season.
Plus, Walker’s history of year-to-year improvements against advanced competition is an encouraging sign—one that accurately portrays his capacity to make adjustments, as well as his desire to become one of the top pitchers in baseball.
Still, Walker’s 2014 role with the Mariners will depend on his showing in spring training. However, if his performance comes remotely close to the expectations set by the organization, then it’s difficult to envision him not beginning the year in The Show.
All videos courtesy of MLB Advanced Media.