James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen were once the much-hyped future of the Mariners pitching staff.
PEORIA, Ariz . — Once, not so long ago, they were the shining hope of the Mariners, a trio of power arms dubbed “The Big Three” who were going to help lead them out of the wilderness.
Now, only one remains, and James Paxton hopes — again — this is finally the year he harnesses his massive potential. Same goes for Taijuan Walker, but he’s now toiling down the road with the Arizona Diamondbacks. And Danny Hultzen is a college student again, sitting this year out while finishing his studies at the University of Virginia, hoping against hope that his damaged left shoulder recovers enough to allow him to continue his career in 2018. But after two major surgeries, Hultzen knows the odds are against him.
“I really thought that at some point all of us were going to be pitching together in the big leagues,’’ Paxton mused from Mariners camp.
But baseball is funny that way. There is nothing more unpredictable, fickle, maddening, occasionally exhilarating, and often heartbreaking — sometimes, all in the same guy — than a pitching prospect on the path to the big leagues.
“It’s prospects,’’ shrugged Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto. “It’s hard to be a big-league baseball player. It’s particularly hard to consistently perform over and over, year after year. So it is a selective class that is allowed to play in the league for a term.”
No matter how touted or hyped a young pitcher is — and this Mariners trio might have been done wrong by the amount of both — there is rarely a straight path to the major leagues. The detours and roadblocks are frequent, sometimes career-ending. And when an organization pins its hopes on a subset of prospects, well, it rarely works out the way it’s drawn up.
It was former Mets general manager Joe McIlvaine who said, if you have several top pitching prospects on the rise simultaneously, one is going to get hurt, one is going to underperform, and one is going to be really good. You can bank on it.
McIlvaine should know — he was the GM when the Mets’ vaunted “Generation K” — fireballers Paul Wilson, Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen — set the baseball world agog with their potential. But all three suffered serious injuries, and only Isringhausen had a substantial career — as a closer primarily with the A’s and Cardinals.
Dipoto is very familiar with this cautionary tale. He was a reliever on the Mets when Wilson, Pulsipher and Isringhausen were on the rise, and fall, in the mid-1990s.
“The world was their oyster,’’ Dipoto recalled. “Their picture was on T-shirts before they had a collective five wins among them. And having seen all three of those guys, they were every bit as good as they were being forecast to be, physically. It’s just a really tough game to play consistently.”
That certainly has been proven out by the Mariners’ erstwhile Big Three, two of whom are still young and talented enough to fulfill the expectations that were thrust upon them. Hultzen, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft, is not so lucky, however, and he looks back incisively, but without bitterness, at how the overarching “Big Three” hype played a role in the demise of his career.
“It was definitely cool to be grouped with those guys and definitely an honor, but I let it get to my head a little,’’ Hultzen said in a phone interview. “I put way too much pressure on myself. I kind of played to please others rather than to play my game, and it absolutely didn’t work. I drove myself into a mental ditch.”
It appeared initially that Hultzen, called by Dipoto “one of the best college pitchers I ever saw” at Virginia, was on the fastest track to the majors. He shined in the minors, particularly in 2012, when Hultzen was 8-3 with a 1.19 earned-run average at Class AA Jackson to earn a promotion to Class AAA Tacoma. A spot in the Mariners’ rotation seemed imminent, especially when he started out well at Tacoma in 2013.
“He was on fire,’’ Paxton recalled. “He was going crazy. Every start, it was just so consistent, and big-league stuff, big-league command, which was the big thing. He was so good at repeating his delivery and commanding the baseball. He was definitely the sharpest out of all of us at that time.”
But, as Dipoto puts it, “The anatomy sometimes doesn’t cooperate.” Shoulder issues cropped up in the middle of the 2013 season, resulting in surgery that October to repair Hultzen’s rotator cuff, labrum and capsule — the full-meal deal of pitching destruction. Though he worked ceaselessly to come back and had encouraging signs along the way, Hultzen’s meteoric rise was over.
I let it get to my head a little. I put way too much pressure on myself. I kind of played to please others rather than to play my game, and it absolutely didn’t work.” - Danny Hultzen
Looking back after that surgery, replicated last July after he re-tore all three, Hultzen believes that his urgency to prove his worth might have hastened his demise.
“I was throwing through pain,’’ he said. “I was trying to be the guy I was supposed to be. I was too insecure in myself to admit I was hurting. I was trying to please everyone. I was the guy who was not supposed to be hurt, the guy who was supposed to be good. It forced me in a downward spiral and I ended up doing a lot of physical and mental damage.”
Being compared to those two guys, who were so extremely talented, and having to compare myself to those guys, was really hard.” - James Paxton
Hultzen, now 27, is finishing his history degree at Virginia (he’ll graduate if he passes his two classes this semester, which includes a course in golf — “not a bad life,’’ he joked). He also is working out diligently with the Virginia training staff in preparation for one more comeback, after contemplating and then rejecting retirement. Fully cognizant of how hard it is to come back from two major shoulder surgeries but unwilling to quit trying yet, Hultzen said he’s “optimistically realistic” about his chances.
“Along with billions of other kids, my dream was to play major-league baseball someday,’’ he said. “It’s extremely frustrating to be so close and it didn’t end up happening. It’s super disappointing, but I’m working hard to get back, and hopefully I can get there and go one step further.”
Walker, the youngest of the trio, has a different take on the “Big Three” phenomenon.
“We were young, so it was fun,’’ he said Saturday in the Diamondbacks’ clubhouse. “I think we enjoyed it. It’s one of those things where it’s tough being in this business. Not everyone is going to make it. People get hurt and stuff like that. But the good thing that came from it, we’re all still friends, we all still talk, so that’s good.”
We were young, so it was fun. I think we enjoyed it. It’s one of those things where it’s tough being in this business. Not everyone is going to make it.” - Taijuan Walker
Walker remembers the three of them talking eagerly about being in the Mariners’ rotation together. He and Paxton got there, but each of them battled inconsistency and injury, showing flashes of brilliance followed by stretches of regression.
“I feel like when I first got there, I had some success, and I was like, ‘All right, I’ve got this. I can do this.’ But you realize how quick it can humble you, and how much harder you have to work to stay up there and stay consistent,’’ Walker said.
Walker was gathered with his family in California the day before Thanksgiving, eagerly awaiting a long-planned visit with Seattle pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. to hone the changes in his delivery that had led to a major breakthrough in the second half of 2016. Instead, Walker noticed several missed calls on his phone and contacted his agent.
“You got traded,’’ he told Walker.
“Stop playing with me. Stop joking,’’ Walker responded.
“I’m not joking. You really did.”
The fact that there hadn’t been any rumors of a pending deal made it even more shocking. Walker said he thought he was going to finish his career in Seattle.
“That night, it was kind of weird,’’ he said. “I didn’t feel like it happened, I guess. Then it started to sink in more. I started to realize, ‘OK, this is going to be good for my career. This is going to be good for me.’ Change is always good, and it’s a new challenge.”
So now Paxton is the last phenom standing in Seattle, and the Mariners believe he’s on the verge of stardom. A demotion to Tacoma last year allowed pitching coach Lance Painter to tweak his mechanics, and the result was an almost instant uptick in velocity.
“Out of nowhere, he started throwing 100, 101,’’ marveled Walker. “He had this nasty slider. I think this year he’s ready.”
Paxton, now 28, believes it too. Both Dipoto and manager Scott Servais notice that there’s a change in the way Paxton carries himself, a subtle but crucial aura of confidence and maturity. That’s important, because “a lot of it with that last hurdle is between your ears,’’ Servais points out.
“James has been maybe the slower, longer play,’’ Dipoto said, reflecting on the Big Three that were all drafted in the regime of his predecessor, Jack Zduriencik. “Didn’t sign out of the college draft, went the independent ball route — a little bit of a unique journey. And then like a lot of big, power lefties, it’s just taken a little bit of time to figure it out. I think we saw a real turn northward last year.”
Paxton, too, sometimes finds himself reflecting on those heady days with Hultzen and Walker as the wunderkinds of the Mariner organization.
“Being compared to those two guys, who were so extremely talented, and having to compare myself to those guys, was really hard,’’ he said. “It took a lot of mental work to not compare myself to those guys, and to do what I had to do to be successful. I finally got a handle on that. That was definitely a challenge, though. At the time, it was tough to deal with.”
Paxton also understands that fans, particularly those of a long-struggling team, have a natural affinity for prospects, tantalized by the promise they provide.
“I know it was exciting for them having us coming through the system,’’ he said.
But that’s all in the past now, and Paxton is healthy (that sound is him knocking on wood) and hopeful of finally putting together a full season of top-level production.
“I feel like this is my year to jump off the platform I kind of set myself up at the end of last season,’’ he said.
Maybe Paxton and Walker will ultimately defy McIlvaine’s judgment and both achieve greatness, albeit behind the schedule the impatient public had in mind. And maybe providence will shine on Hultzen and he can forge a career out of the ravages of a broken-down shoulder.
Dipoto, meanwhile, knows better than most that all the scouting acumen in the world, and all the accolades that accompany it, don’t change the fact that when it comes to young pitchers, it’s invariably a crapshoot. There’s even an apt acronym for this phenomenon, coined by Baseball Prospectus founder Gary Huckabay in the late 1990s: TNSTAAPP. It stands for There’s No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect.
“I saw all three of those guys as amateurs,’’ Dipoto said. “I liked them probably as much, or more, than (Mariners scouting director) Tom McNamara liked them. Everybody was on board with those players as prospects, and frankly, through the minor leagues. At any given moment in time, you could have traded them for a king’s ransom.
“Unfortunately for Danny Hultzen, I don’t know that he’s ever going to have the chance, but in Taijuan and James’ case, they still have all the tools, all the ability to achieve what you believed they would when they were draft prospects or coming through the minor leagues.”