During five seasons of trial and error with their youth, the Mariners have introduced a kaleidoscope of prospects. They’ve all been interesting to gaze upon, at least for a while, such varying sizes and shapes and talent levels. You still aren’t sure these kids have them any closer to winning, but in lieu of success, they’ve been the intrigue.
Still, despite this parade of potential, you have yet to lay eyes on a future superstar. You’ve seen good players, such as Kyle Seager. You’ve seen players you’re willing to project to be above average, such as Brad Miller and Nick Franklin. You’ve seen talented players that you know can do more, such as Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak.
But the Mariners’ version of Mike Trout? Rub your eyes all you want. You haven’t seen him in blue.
The Mariners’ version of Stephen Strasburg? They should’ve lost more the final weekend of 2008 to ensure they got the real thing in the draft.
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All this losing, all this rebuilding, and the benefit has been solid, but not spectacular.
Until now, perhaps.
Introducing Taijuan Walker, the gem emerging from this grief.
Walker, the Mariners’ top prospect, makes his big-league debut Friday in Houston. The pitcher just turned 21 on Aug. 13, so you don’t want to put too much on him right now. He has plenty of time to finish developing. But at the same time, he’s clearly worthy of wild expectations.
More than any of the young Mariners you’ve seen, Walker possesses an “it” factor that you should recognize even during inevitable moments of struggle. He is a “wow” player, from the life on his mid-90s mph fastball to his impressive 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame. Walker is a former high-school basketball star, and he looks like he could drop 30 points on some poor college team right now.
They don’t make pitchers with his athleticism often. He throws with such ease and fluidity. He’s not quite the caliber of Felix Hernandez, who has one of the most ridiculous skill sets ever. But Walker is close enough.
Walker is raw, for sure. He’s been dedicated solely to baseball for just three years. The Mariners took him No. 43 overall in the 2010 draft, thinking long-term project with incredible upside. He exceeded expectations as a first-year pro in 2011, struggled on and off the field (his mother had cancer) in 2012, and this season, he has made another significant leap, starting the season in Class AA and rising all the way to the big show.
This late-season glimpse won’t define Walker’s future. Regardless of how he performs, he has much work to do to maximize his talent. The Mariners will tell you his curveball is good but inconsistent, and he doesn’t mask it well enough. His changeup is merely for show at this point. And his cut fastball, a new addition to his repertoire, remains a work in progress, too. So, when big-league hitters figure him out, he will get hit hard from time to time initially.
That has already happened in Class AAA Tacoma. After a mesmerizing start, Walker has had some low moments, but overall, he’s 5-3 with a 3.61 ERA at that level. For the season, he has a 2.93 ERA in 1411
3 innings between Class AA and Class AAA.
This call-up is significant for the Mariners, even though you won’t see much of Walker. Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik has mentioned 160 innings as a probable limit many times. So, you’ll probably get a three-start peek at Walker.
Still, in a year in which most all of the Mariners’ biggest prospects have made it to the majors, Walker’s promotion signals that the final phase of Zduriencik’s youth movement has begun. Only pitchers Danny Hultzen and James Paxton, who along with Walker form the so-called Big Three, haven’t been promoted. Hultzen would already be in the majors if not for shoulder problems this season. Paxton struggled in Class AAA for half of the season, but he has pitched well since.
For all the position players the Mariners have brought up, they’ve put the majority of their future hopes on their young pitching. Walker and at least one of their other young arms — throw Erasmo Ramirez and Brandon Maurer into this group — must succeed. Otherwise, the franchise miscalculated badly.
So, Walker symbolizes the end of the beginning, in a sense. Or, if you’re a pessimist, you fret it’s the beginning of the end. The long wait is over, however. Most all of the kids are here. And if you’ve worried that the Mariners don’t have a face of this youth movement, look now at Walker, bleached hair and all. He’s the best of this precocious bunch.
Make that, he had better be the best of this precocious bunch.