Taijuan Walker Ready to Break Out, Form 1-2 Ace Duo with Felix Hernandez

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Taijuan Walker Ready to Break Out, Form 1-2 Ace Duo with Felix Hernandez
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

If all the prospect reports and estimated times of arrival had been right, we wouldn't be asking whether Taijuan Walker can step up to be a legitimate "2" to Felix Hernandez's "1" atop the Seattle Mariners starting rotation.

We wouldn't be asking, because it already would have happened, the way it happened for all those New York Mets starters. They stepped in, and they stepped up, seemingly without a glitch, and the Mets found themselves in the World Series.

The Mariners, for yet another year, did not. And with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays all making it to October, the Mariners now own the longest postseason drought in the game (14 years).

And Taijuan Walker can still be the guy who ends it. This year.

He still has all that talent that got him ranked ahead of guys like Chris Archer and Noah Syndergaard on those long-ago prospect lists. He's only 23, and he's coming off a pretty good half-season of success in 2015.

He could "shoot the moon" this year, as new Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said in his introductory press conference last September.

"He's the type of talent who could make huge strides in performance at any point," Dipoto said this week in a follow-up text to Bleacher Report. "But for now, we're quite satisfied with simply viewing him as one of our guys, no more, no less."

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
Jerry Dipoto's job as Mariners general manager gets a lot easier if Walker becomes a true No. 2 starter behind Felix Hernandez.

The Mariners actually entered spring training with the public stance that Walker had to compete for a job, that he was one of three pitchers for the final two rotation spots. Even now, while it's clear he will be there, Bob Dutton of the News Tribune believes the Mariners will start him fourth behind Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Wade Miley.

Really, though, Walker is the guy who could push the Mariners to something special.

He's part of the reason Dipoto didn't believe the M's needed a total overhaul, why the new GM kept together the core that includes Hernandez as well as Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz. With Cano and Cruz in the middle of the order, and Hernandez and Walker atop the rotation, it's not that hard to see the Mariners contending in the American League West.

It's not that hard to see Walker as a guy who can help make it happen, based on the stuff that earned those high prospect rankings and the results that show he went 10-3 with a 3.62 ERA over his final 20 starts in 2015 (with supporting numbers to match). The Mariners can even see his ugly first two months as a positive because a young pitcher learned to figure things out without needing a trip back to Triple-A.

His results so far this spring have been so-so, including a Monday start in which he allowed four runs in 3.1 innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks. But it's worth remembering Zack Greinke allowed three runs in 3.2 innings in the same game, and in another split-squad game on the same day, Hernandez gave up three runs in 2.1 innings.

It's also worth remembering Walker had a spectacular spring in 2015, with a 0.67 ERA and a .114 opponents' batting average. That performance no doubt had people suggesting the same thing we're suggesting here: Walker could join King Felix and bring the Mariners to the top.

It's easy to see super-young pitching and predict greatness, but there are cautionary tales everywhere that prove it doesn't always happen. The Mariners themselves thought they were building a super-rotation, back when Baseball America was ranking Walker and Danny Hultzen ahead of Archer, and James Paxton ahead of Marcus Stroman.

Hultzen got hurt. Paxton is 27 and still hasn't spent a full season in the big leagues. Maurer was traded to the San Diego Padres for Seth Smith.

Walker remains as the big hope.

He's still young enough and talented enough, and the run of good starts last year felt like a possible breakthrough. As manager Scott Servais said in a tweet from Larry Stone of the Seattle Times:

Yes, it is fun to watch him pitch. It'll be even more fun for Servais and the Mariners if Walker pitches them to October.

It could happen. This year.

 

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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