It took me by surprise a bit that I had not yet written up Taijuan Walker in one of these posts. Surprising not only because I've long held a candle for Walker* but also because he's been a top prospect for some time now. Drafted in the supplemental first round (43rd overall), Walker took to the mound quickly after playing shortstop early in his high school career. He gained more national attention after earning the Mariners' 2011 pitcher of the year honors, putting up a 113/39 strikeout/walk ratio as an 18 year old in Lo-A.
*a candle is a thing that you use a match to ligh- what's a match? when you strike it on a box an- HEY YOU COME BACK...youths
So what did he do for an encore? 2012 saw Walker skip straight to Double-A, avoiding the pitcher's nightmare that is the California League. Certainly, assigning a 19 year old to Double-A would be considered more than aggressive and is fraught with it's own particular set of perils, perhaps equal to that of sending a pitcher to the Cal League. As expected, there were plenty of learning moments for Walker in Jackson, as he posted a 4.69 ERA (4.04 FIP) along with a 21.5% strikeout rate and a 9.1% walk rate. The strikeouts were extremely impressive given his age relative to level and while he issued more walks than you'd like to see, it's certainly understandable. Walker was good enough at Double-A that there was speculation he could start 2013 at Triple-A, given the Mariners' history of aggressiveness with the precocious prospect. That speculation (as with most) turned out to be specious, as Walker was returned to Double-A to begin the season. Through 14 starts though, it appeared as if the Mariners made the wrong decision as he carved up the Southern League to the tune of a 28.3% strikeout rate while keeping his walk rate just under 9%, registering a 2.46 ERA (3.13 FIP) along the way. The Mariners obliged with a callup to Triple-A where, through 16 innings accrued over three starts, Walker might be throwing than he was at Double-A (small sample, we know). He's piled up a 25% strikeout rate and dropped his walk rate to below 8%. Given the jump in the quality of competition, it could be considered an improvement.
It's well and good to know that Walker is slicing through hitters that are 2, 3 and 4 years older than him with relative is, but to know how his talent will translate to the majors, it's imperative to know how he's doing it. Walker is a terrific athlete, and that plays into an easy release as the ball leaves his hand. His fastball sits mid 90s and can touch the upper registers. It's a plus to plus-plus pitch, and that's a very good base to start with for a starting pitcher. His best secondary offering is a cutter that is also plus to plus-plus. He broke off a few beauties in the Futures Game at Citifield on Sunday, if anyone was able to catch that. Here is where the trouble starts to set in for Walker. He throws a curve that shows promise, but there's been some debate about what type. Some say it's a spiked curve, but Walker will only call it a normal curve. It's flashed plus potential before but his ability to command the pitch comes and goes - which would make sense if it was a spike curve as that pitch is near impossible to control. The change up also hasn't developed as much as we hoped. He'll float the occasional one in there but on the whole he's a well below average pitch. The worrisome thing here is the lack of feel he has for the...well...feel pitches here (curve, change). Most guys who can't grasp the curve or change end up in the bullpen. It's not fair to put Walker in that box given he's not even of legal drinking age, but the (so far) stalled development of his curve and change are something that I'm keeping a very close eye on. It might be that he can dominate the minors with only show-me version of those pitches, but I don't think he can reach his considerable ceiling (still a #1 starter) with a fastball and a cut fastball as his only two above average pitches.
In the offseason I wrote up the Mariners for the minor league keeper thoughts series. Then I had Walker as the #2 pitching prospect in the game behind Dylan Bundy. We know what's happened with Bundy, and while Walker has been healthy and actually quite dominant, he has been passed over by at least one prospect (Archie Bradley) and possibly others. He's still got a #1 starter's ceiling, which is bleeding on the plate rare. But he's also still a project with a lot of development ahead of him to get there. Gaining consistency in his secondary pitches and showing some feel for the craft is going to be imperative. As a fantasy prospect he's very clearly high reward. I just don't think the risk he represents gets much attention because it can (somewhat reasonably) be explained away by his age.