PEORIA, Ariz. – They never much liked the Big Three nickname. Not the Mariners organization. And certainly not Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton, the trio of pitching wunderkinds whose talent prompted the accelerated enthusiasm.
It was too early to label them anything more than precocious. They knew it, and even though they enjoyed the national headlines and the giddy reactions to their spring-training cameos, they embraced the next-best-thing declarations as delicately as possible.
“There is no Big Three,” Walker said last spring, “because we’re still trying to make it big.”
The road to making it big is littered with peril, especially for pitchers who bank their lives on fragile arms. And here in 2014 — the long-anticipated Year of the Reluctant Big Three — the group is in need of a tow truck. Hultzen’s season is already over, and his career could be in jeopardy after having major surgery of his left shoulder last October. The start of Walker’s season has been delayed because of bursitis in his right shoulder.
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That leaves Paxton, the oldest of the bunch at 25, as the trio’s greatest hope, at least for now. Hultzen, 24, will have to be meticulous in his rehabilitation to make it back. Walker, 21, shouldn’t be out for long, but he’s not expected to be ready for the start of the season. It makes the expectations for Paxton grander than they’ve ever been.
Paxton, who has thrown only 24 big-league innings, might be the steadiest option the Mariners currently have behind ace Felix Hernandez. No. 2 starter Hisashi Iwakuma, who finished third in the American League Cy Young voting last season, has an injured finger and, like Walker, he won’t be ready at the start of the season.
So it’s a good thing that the healthiest member of the Big Three appears ready to become a major-league mainstay.
Paxton made his second start of Cactus League play Wednesday and threw three scoreless innings in an 8-5 Mariners’ loss to Cleveland. So far, he hasn’t allowed a run and surrendered only two hits in five innings. But more than stats, Paxton looks comfortable at this level now. He is commanding his pitches well, starting with working his fastball in and out and sprinkling in three other pitches — a curveball, changeup and cut fastball — with encouraging effectiveness.
There was a time Paxton was considered the third prospect in the trio. Walker, the No. 43 overall pick in the 2010 draft, is an athletic phenom who went pro out of high school. The Mariners took Hultzen second overall in 2011, and many scouts thought he would make it to the majors quickly.
But it appears this is Paxton’s time.
In a four-start stint with the Mariners last September, he was 3-0 with a 1.50 earned-run average. He fought through struggles at Class AAA Tacoma during the first half of the 2013 season and finished the year impressively. Now, he knows he belongs.
“It’s a lot different,” Paxton said of this spring training. “Having that opportunity to go up in September and do what I did really helped build my confidence, and having the success that I did really showed me that I belonged there, to compete at that level.”
Baseball prospects rarely progress in a linear path. Something always seems to get in the way. For sure, the Mariners know all about that. But for the mentally strong, failure can contribute ultimately to success. Paxton had an ERA approaching 6.00 for a huge portion of his 2013 minor-league season. By the end, he had established himself as a projected 2014 big-league starter. He proved plenty by grinding through his struggles.
“It’s big,” Paxton said of his 2013 turnaround. “I’m going to go through struggles like everybody else at times, and being able to come out on the other side is the most important thing. I worked on refining a few things. I shortened up my delivery on my back side, and that helped me to repeat a little bit better. I was just kind of sticking to it and fighting.”
Paxton tweaked his delivery about six weeks before he was called up to the majors. Since then, he has been “able to get on top of the ball a little easier, and it’s working really well for me.” A true student of the game, he studied film this offseason and worked to make his legs stronger.
It hasn’t been easy for him to see Hultzen endure an injury that requires a long recovery. And he hopes Walker can recover quickly. But this seems to be his time to break out, and he won’t hide his excitement.
“I feel good,” said Paxton, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound left-hander. “You never know in this game, but I’m confident. I’m ready to make the best of this opportunity.”
For now, the Big Three has been reduced to Paxton and two get-well-soon wishes. But their tale is far from complete.
With Paxton leading the way now, there’s still hope.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277
On Twitter @JerryBrewer