Taijuan Walker: Is He the Best Pitching Prospect in Baseball?

Happy.

In the 2010 draft, we knew that there was a once-in-a-decade hitting prospect and an absolutely stunning high school pitching prospect. There was no question that the Nationals were going to take the hitter, Bryce Harper, and sure enough two years later at the age of 19 he has seen success in the major leagues.

And what about the absolutely stunning pitching prospect? While Jameson Taillon has been very successful this season, one would have to question whether or not he would still be drafted ahead of the high school pitcher that was taken 41 picks after him: Taijuan Walker.

The Seattle Mariners were without a first round pick that season, having to surrender it to the hated Angels because of Chone Figgins, but was it a blessing in disguise that there was no fly in the ointment that could have prevented their destiny of drafting Walker in the supplemental first round? Even without a first rounder, the front office worked magic in order to get possibly the second best player in the draft.

Walker was drafted after: Taillon, Drew Pomeranz, Barret Loux, Matt Harvey, Karsten Whitson, Deck McGuire, Chris Sale, Dylan Covey, Hayden Simpson, Kaleb Cowart (by those Angels!), Michael Foltynewicz, Alex Wimmers, Jesse Biddle, Zach Lee, Cameron Bedrosian, Cito Culver, Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard, Anthony Ranaudo, and Asher Wojciechowski.

He was the 21st pitcher taken overall, the 13th high school pitcher, and went after players like Loux and Whitson that did not sign. And this isn't hindsight of five years that we are talking about here... it only took a year for us to really realize that the Mariners had an amazing steal in the prior draft, much like the steal that the Angels had with Mike Trout except that Walker was taken significantly later and yet are people really talking about what Walker has done and what he could be?

Perhaps it's the fact that Walker is not alone as a "top prospect" for Seattle, with much of the attention being shined on his AA Jackson Generals teammates Danny Hultzen and James Paxton. For a guy that is only 19-years-old, we can't really quantify how valuable it may be for him to not be "the guy" but simply be "one of the guys."

There is no pressure on Walker to perform right now or even this year, but eventually people are going to take notice. Eventually I believe you'll hear a lot of people say these words: "Taijuan Walker is the best pitching prospect in baseball."

The last time that those words were said about a Seattle Mariner, it was another teenage phenom that took the city by storm and encapsulated the Pacific Northwest with his charm and devastatingly effective repertoire of pitches. In fact, August will be the 7th Anniversary of Felix Hernandez making his debut for the Seattle Mariners and he did it at just 19 years of age. And boy, was he good.

Here is what King Felix did in his 2-4th start when he was only a teenager in the bigs: 24 innings, 26 K, 2 BB, 3 ER. Of course, people have sort of forgotten that it really took about four or five seasons for Felix to be dominant but he's been very good from the first time he stepped on a major league mound. But the King might be getting company in that spotlight soon with Walker.

Because while Hultzen could be great and Paxton could be very good, Taijuan Walker could be devastatingly effective and amazing, just like Felix has been. Walker is that special.

Skipping past his seven inning debut as a 17-year-old in 2010, let's get to last year when he made his full season debut in the minors as an 18-year-old in A-ball: 18 starts, 96.2 innings, 113 K, 39 BB, 2.89 ERA, 69 H, 4 HR allowed, 55% groundballs, 2.86 FIP.

This is in the Midwest League where all but ten hitters were under the age of twenty. Facing batters that were almost all more experienced than him, and as fans only knowing that he was "a raw work in progress that could be very good some day" and being the youngest pitcher in the league by nearly a full year, Walker dominated. He was fifth in the league in hits allowed per nine innings among starters, sixth in strikeouts per nine innings, and though his 3.6 walks per nine wasn't among the league leaders it was still pretty good, considering.

Baseball America noticed his efforts and put him at 20th overall after not having him on the top 100 the year prior, because nobody really knew much about him. That made him the 10th best pitching prospect in baseball, one spot ahead of his teammate Hultzen.

Now that we are a month into the season, is it too early to say that he's the best left in the minors? Let's discuss:

First of all, what has Walker done this season?

6 starts, 31.2 innings, 32 K, 10 BB, 25 H, 1.71 ERA, 1 HR allowed, 2.57 FIP, 48% groundballs. Walker has reduced his walk% per plate appearance from 10.2% to 7.9% and his probably coming off of his worst start of the season: 4 innings, 4 H, 2 doubles, 2 ER, 4 K, 2 BB. Which isn't terrible. Especially when you consider that Walker has skipped High-A.

Yes, that means that you don't take those numbers with a grain of salt. You take them with a grain of sugar? Whatever the opposite of "grain of salt" is. Because at age 19, he's the youngest player in the league. In fact, he is the only teenager in the Southern League. And on top of that, there is only one pitcher and one hitter besides Walker that are under the legal drinking age of 21.

He's that much younger than everyone else, and he's posting a 1.71 ERA.

Second of all, who could be better than him? He was the 10th best pitching prospect by BA, as I said, so how are the other nine doing?

1. Matt Moore - No longer a prospect. Hasn't been very good in the majors yet.

2. Yu Darvish - Never should have been considered a prospect.

3. Julio Teheran - At age 21 in AAA, 25.2 innings, 20 K/11 BB, 2.81 ERA. Very solid efforts.

4. Shelby Miller - 21 in AAA, 28.1 innings, 37 K, 15 BB, 4.45 ERA. He's giving up 11.1 hits per nine and 4.8 BB/9. Of course, the strikeouts are beautiful and him and Teheran are both very young for AAA.

5. Trevor Bauer - 21 at AA, 41.1 innings, 51 K, 25 BB, 1.96 ERA. Also pitches in the Southern League but two years older than Walker and needs to refine his command but has otherwise been great.

6. Dylan Bundy - 19 at A, 20 innings, 33 K, 2 BB, 0.00 ERA, 2 hits allowed. Okay fine, Bundy is ridiculous. Absolutely stupid. He's proper age for the league but really should be moved, even though the O's won't let him go past his pitch or innings limit for good reason. Bundy is special.

7. Gerrit Cole - 21 at High-A, 28 innings, 34 K, 10 BB, 3.54 ERA. It's good. It's definitely not bad. Would like to see him in AA though.

8. Tyler Skaggs - 20 at AA, 32.1 innings, 43 K, 7 BB, 3.06 ERA. Skaggs is also the same league as Walker (obviously as he is Diamondbacks buddies with Bauer) and is running a ridiculous 6.14 K/BB ratio.

9. Jameson Taillon - 20 at High-A, 30.2 innings, 33 K, 6 BB, 1.76 ERA, 19 hits allowed. Lower level than Walker and a year older.

So has he skipped past any of these guys?

Well obviously Moore and Darvish are out. What about the other seven?

Teheran is not running a good K/BB ratio, but I still think he's a very good prospect and will be a great pitcher. But he's two years older than Walker and I think Taijuan could post similar or better numbers in AAA. Some people thought that Miller should be the top pitching prospect in baseball and he's been good but he's still adjusting to AAA as well. I know people love Bauer, but in the same league as Walker he hasn't necessarily been that much more dominant (if at all) and is two years older, has a lower ceiling.

Cole is "meh." He was meh at the draft, he's meh now, but he could be a solid or great #2, or even a #1. But we haven't seen it yet and he needs to move up.

Skaggs has been great. Taillon has been great but I think that at best you say that him and Walker are "even" and because of the advanced level of Walker I would give him the edge.

That only leaves Dylan Bundy.

I think that arguments can be made for pretty much all of these guys and certainly different opinions on guys like Miller, Teheran, and Bauer are going to yield different results, but for my money the only guy that is really driving his price up right now like Walker is, would be Bundy.

He's unhittable. The O's might hold him back but what are his end-of-season numbers going to look like? There will be regression right? RIGHT?!

Right now, Walker has two plus-plus pitches with his high-90s fastball and dropneck curve. Those two pitches are what's going to make Walker an elite starter in the majors (if all goes well) but there are only two other aspects of his game left to work on that could make him one of the best in the business: the change-up and his command.

Walker has already reduced walks to start the year and if he can continue it, he will only get better with his other pitches as he gets older. The most important thing to note is the age at which he is doing this, because at this pace if he were to start next season in AAA, he'd still be younger than what Miller and Teheran are in AAA right now by a full year. He'd be one of the few 20-year-olds to really get a taste of AAA and I highly doubt that he would do badly.

At this point, he might just continue to dominate and he might get there as soon as this season. Even on an innings limit, the Mariners are going to have to advance him if he keeps going at this rate.

In 2005, Felix Hernandez got his first taste of AAA and he was only 19 years of age. He threw 88 innings, struck out 100 batters, walked 48, and had a 2.25 ERA. Certainly, you can see where his control was an issue but he was working on a devastating collection of pitches that would one day make him one of the top five starters in baseball. Eventually, the control and the command take care of themselves if you work hard at it, and Walker has also been praised for his work ethic.

When you look at Walker and what he's done at each level for such a young age, you can see the comparisons to Felix. There is no telling what his future holds but when I look at it from where I'm sitting I certainly see one of the best, if not the best, pitching prospect in all of baseball.

What say you?

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