Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker — pitching for the Class AA Jackson (Tenn.) Generals — could be the core of Seattle's future. Baseball America calls the Generals the most-talented team in the minor leagues.
JACKSON, Tenn. — To get to Jackson, Tenn., you can fly into Nashville, hop onto Interstate 40 and drive west for two hours, past the Loretta Lynn Ranch, past the Bucksnort exit in Hickman County, until you get to the town of 65,000.
But there’s an alternative route to Jackson: You can be a top prospect in the Mariners organization, and chances are you’ll be assigned to the Jackson Generals, rated by Baseball America as the most talented team in all the minor leagues.
Much of the focus, of course, has been on the vaunted “Big Three” — young pitchers James Paxton, Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker, a fireballing trio the ballclub envisions as the foundation of a championship-caliber rotation down the road.
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Jackson pitching coach Lance Painter equates them to the Braves’ trio of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux. A scout warns they can also turn out like an equally hyped group of Mets pitchers — Paul Wilson, Jason Isringhausen and Bill Pulsipher — who flamed out in New York. The Mariners will take their chances.
“It’s a special group of kids,” Painter said. “They can play together and have a lot of success.”
But as the Generals have rolled out to a Southern League-best 20-11 record, it’s become apparent that they are more than just those three. Jack Zduriencik, recently back from watching the Generals in a series in Pensacola, Fla., said opposing scouts were buzzing to him about the number of prospects on the team. Manager Jim Pankovits, who has spent 30 years in player development, said it’s the most talented team he’s ever managed.
“This is a special team,” Pankovits said. “There are a lot of big-league prospects on it, more than most. It’s going to be exciting to see how they progress.”
It’s a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the pitchers themselves. Truth be known, they are getting a little uncomfortable with all the attention surrounding them.
“I think we all are,” said Hultzen. “It’s something we don’t buy into at all. It’s great to be around those guys, but we pitch for the team. We don’t pitch for ourselves, we don’t pitch for our hype or anything.”
Walker notes that all five Jackson starters are doing well, including Andrew Carraway and Brandon Maurer.
“It’s not the Big Three, it’s the Big Five,” Walker said.
On the team’s picture day, naturally the trio was asked to pose together. When the photographer loudly asked them to say “Big Three” on the count of three, teammates hooted and gave them the business. Message received.
“It’s one of the great things about this team — no one gets away with anything,” said first baseman Rich Poythress. “It’s a great environment. Everyone is having fun. It reminds me of a college environment.”
Said Painter of the Big Three hype, “We’ve toned it down a little.”
And yet it’s difficult for the Mariners not to get a little giddy when they see how Paxton, Walker and Hultzen have responded this season. They have been outstanding, for the most part — not that it has sent the Jackson community into a tizzy. On a recent weekend, 1,300 turned out on a Friday night to see Walker pitch, and 851 were there on Sunday for a Hultzen start (despite a 2-for-1 promotion for fans who brought a church bulletin).
“Our best days are Dollar Thursdays,” Walker said. “If it was like that every day, it would be awesome. You get lucky when you get to pitch on Dollar Thursday. It gets pretty packed.”
The right-handed Walker, just 19, leads the Southern League with his 1.30 earned-run average in five starts. He is 3-1 and has 28 strikeouts with just eight walks in 27-2/3 innings, giving up 21 hits.
“I think it’s going good so far,” he said, sitting at a picnic table outside the Generals clubhouse, which is situated behind left field. “Of course, there are a couple things I could work on, and still need to work on. But so far, it’s going good.”
The previous night, Walker had impressed Pankovits and Painter by working six shutout innings against the Tennessee Smokies despite not having his best fastball (a pitch that hit 98 mph in his most recent start in Pensacola).
“It was kind of nice to watch,” Painter said. “He needs to use his off-speed pitches to be successful, especially at the major-league level, and he’s got three quality pitches. He used them all (against Tennessee). But what I like more than anything, at the end of the game, he started getting in that extra gear. It just shows how special he is.”
Paxton, a 23-year-old left-hander, is 3-0 with a 2.51 ERA in six starts, striking out 36 in 28-2/3 innings with 18 walks. He had two uncharacteristically wild starts back to back in April, walking 13 in a combined seven innings while giving up six earned runs in 2-1/3 innings in one of them. Since then, however, Paxton has shined in his next two starts, and believes the struggles were ultimately a blessing.
“I feel for me that was kind of a step back to take two steps forward,” he said. “I definitely learned some things in those two games about myself and how to work through stuff like that. I feel that’s really important for my career.”
Hultzen is going through something similar, having gotten knocked out of a start against Tennessee in the fifth inning, then walking seven in 4-1/3 innings Saturday against Pensacola, with Zduriencik in attendance. But those missteps are expected for a pitcher just out of college, and his overall body of work is still impressive: a 2.35 ERA in six starts, having allowed just 15 hits in 30-2/3 innings. He has struck out 34 and walked 19.
Even when Hultzen struggles, it’s relative. Opponents still aren’t hitting him much. Since giving up five earned runs over four innings in his first pro start, Hultzen has a 1.01 ERA in his next five, and a growing realization that the same stuff that dominated at the University of Virginia will play in pro ball as well.
“Coming out of college, you always have that doubt,” he said. “Not doubt, but uncertainty. Because you haven’t done it yet, and there are questions about whether you can really do it. But especially with the fall league, and going through big-league camp for a while, playing and getting adjusted to professional baseball, it gives you all that more confidence.”
Pankovits is increasingly impressed with the trio, and not just on the mound.
“I think what I’ve been most impressed about is how they go about their business, their focus on their career,” he said. “How they are able to stay in the moment and focus on the job at hand, which is that particular night they are pitching. They’re all great kids that work extremely hard. They’ve very coachable, which, in addition to their talent, just gives them unlimited potential. I love them. I think they’re awesome.”
So when will their awesomeness be unleashed on the Mariners? That’s the burning question, one that Zduriencik isn’t quite ready to answer. But anyone who watches them at Jackson can see they are on a fast track to Seattle.
“You have to gauge every guy as an individual and see how he handles it,” Zduriencik said Saturday. “You want to see them struggle a little and come out of it. You want them to battle. You want them to have good outings and see how they react. Remember, one is 19, one has had just over a month of pro ball, and one missed a year. Let’s see how they perform and see what happens.
“I will say this: It’s good to have those guys.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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