The Mariners have called up right-handed starter Taijuan Walker and he will start on Friday against the Houston Astros at 5:10 PST, according to their official team Twitter account. Seattle designated Aaron Harang for assignment on Monday and it just so happened that Walker was also scheduled to start Friday for Tacoma. The M's just decided to make it easy and have their top prospect make his major league debut.
Walker, 21, is enjoying a great overall season and a very respectable season for his age at triple-A Tacoma. Keith Law ranked Walker as the 10th best overall prospect at midseason and the third-best pitcher after Archie Bradley and Mark Appel, but all three names came in succession so the difference is negligible. Last year at midseason Law had Walker at six, but he hardly "fell" as much as some big name hitters stepped up.
Last May I wrote about why Walker was probably the best pitching prospect in baseball, ahead of Dylan Bundy. Bundy made the show sooner but has faced an unfortunate setback.
Craig Goldstein wrote about Walker here at FakeTeams on July 18, saying this about his repertoire:
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.
Walker was the 43rd overall pick out of Yucaipa High School in Yucaipa, California. He is 6'4, 210 lbs and right-handed. The Mariners did not have a first round pick that year but since the Jack Z era began in 2009, that hasn't mattered as much. They've done quite well after the first round.
He made a short debut in 2010 at the age of 17, pitching seven innings, striking out nine, walking three, and allowing two hits in the Arizona Rookie League.
The following year at single-A Clinton, he pitched 96.2 innings, struck out 113, walked 39, posted a 2.89 ERA in 18 starts with 6.4 hits allowed per nine innings. Courtesy of MinorLeagueCentral.com, Walker had a FIP of 2.70, SIERA of 2.95, GB% of 50.7, and opponents hit .202/.289/.279 against him with a BABIP of .289.
Walker skipped high-A High Desert in 2012 and was the youngest pitcher in double-A. For Jackson he pitched 126.2 innings, striking out 118, walking 50, posting a 4.69 ERA and allowing 8.8 hits. It seemed like he took a step back but Walker started off as the best pitcher in the league for about two months and then took a step back in the second half of the year before finishing strong. Walker had a FIP of 4.04, SIERA of 3.89, GB% of 39.7, and opponents hit .258/.341/.403 on a BABIP of .316.
Walker walked fewer batters per plate appearance than the year before, but struck out fewer as well. He was sent back to double-A this season, still just 20 when the season began. (Walker turned 21 on August 13.)
In his return to Jackson, Walker pitched 84 innings, struck out 96, walked 30, posted an ERA of 2.46, allowed 6.2 hits per nine innings. He had a FIP of 3.09, SIERA of 2.97, GB% of 43.6, and opponents hit .194/.280/.319 against him on a BABIP of .263. He was promoted to Tacoma and had pitched 57.1 innings this season at triple-A with 64 strikeouts, 27 walks, an ERA of 3.61 and 8.5 hits allowed per nine.
He has a FIP of 3.49 at Tacoma with a SIERA of 3.49, 45.1% ground balls, and opponents are hitting .249/.337/.364 against him with a BABIP of .331. All as a pitcher that just turned the legal drinking age two weeks ago. Walker was named the PCL Pitcher of the Week on Monday. In his final triple-A start of this year, he went six innings, allowed six hits, one run, nine strikeouts, and two walks.
In terms of age, Walker is about a year behind the pace of Felix Hernandez -- the greatest pitching prospect in Seattle history. (With the exception maybe of Ryan Anderson.) Walker is already one of the five best pitching prospects in franchise history, but will he succeed at the next level similar to Felix or something else? And what kind of value does he have to your fantasy team this year?
Walker has pitched 141.1 innings this season and Jack Z said that they expect him to finish "around 160." Given another 20 innings, you could expect Walker to make three starts at the least, four starts at the most. If they kept it at a five-man rotation without skipping any starts, that would make his opponents:
@ Astros, August 30
@ Royals, September 4
Astros, September 9
and if he got one more
@ Cardinals, September 15
The Cardinals game would almost be a way to say, "Okay kid, let's see what you've got" in either a genius confidence-building move or just a terrible, terrible disaster. The first three starts are completely ideal however, with some possibly being able to argue that Houston's lineup is worse than most any in triple-A.
Given his success in the minors, given what we know about his arsenal, given that it seems teams can often find it difficult to hit a young pitcher because they've never faced him before -- Walker is an excellent candidate to help you in your playoff push.
That's my official, FakeTeams, "be a professional" analysis.
Now if you don't mind, I'm gonna do what you all think I'm gonna do -- which is FLIP OUT!
Jack has done an excellent job of building this farm up and if the Mariners are finally going to compete for the playoffs for the first time in a decade, it will be because of the prospects brought in by this (and some recently fired members of) the front office.
Mike Zunino, Justin Smoak, Nick Franklin, Brad Miller, Kyle Seager, perhaps even Dustin Ackley. But what Jack has not been able to see yet is the promotion of his future pitching staff, which is led by Walker -- who also happens to be the best prospect he's bred yet with Seattle. A rotation of Felix, Hisashi Iwakuma, Walker, and Erasmo Ramirez on it's own should already be way above average. That is without including Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, and to a lesser extent, Brandon Maurer, for the fifth spot. Walker should be able to come into camp next year and win a spot in the rotation, even if it means you have to pay him sooner, you don't want to waste too much time with pitchers in the minors when you don't have to.
As we've seen so many times, these guys can see their careers derailed at any given time and why would you want to see that happen in a meaningless triple-A game when the pitcher is already too good for triple-A?
I've been on record for a few months that I think the Mariners will challenge for the playoffs next year and perhaps win one of the two Wild Cards. The biggest reason I think that is Walker. He's the biggest possible change from 2013 to 2014 and having that one additional good pitcher is going to be huge. Even if he struggles, I don't think he will struggle like what you would see from Joe Saunders or Harang.
I'd project that a full season next year from Walker could look like this:
180 innings, 210 strikeouts, 65 walks, 3.75 ERA, some amount of wins and losses.
I can't wait to see him in the majors... oh look, we don't have to do very much more of that.