Taijuan Walker likes to keep people waiting.
The Mariners top prospect, the fifth best in all of baseball, impressed during a cup of coffee last September and was all but set to join Seattle’s rotation within the first two months of 2014.
And then, as pitching prospects are apt to do – especially Mariner ones – he got hurt. A “shoulder impingement” was the technical diagnosis and suddenly Walker was down for at least two weeks. His ability to help the major league club at all in 2014 was in jeopardy.
But now, after two months and six rehab starts Taijuan has proven he’s back, and he could help turn a middling Mariners team into a dangerous one down the stretch.
The 21 year old right hander held his sixth rehab start last night, and was as dominant as he’s ever been. Pitching against the Triple-A Tacoma Rainers in Cheney Stadium, Walker threw a complete game shutout, the first of his professional career. He was in command from start to finish, scattering just four hits while fanning eight. His stuff was absolutely filthy; all but one of his eight strikeouts came swinging.
At the time of Walker’s injury, GM Jack Zduriencik indicated that they would have to “build him back up [to strength].” Well, the former first round pick threw 109 pitches last night and didn’t seem to tire, his final two strikeouts coming on his 97th and 103rd pitch, respectively. And Walker’s major problem throughout his career has been control; last night he walked only one batter and threw over 2/3 of his pitches for strikes.
Walker has now impressed in three of his last four rehab starts, last week’s start against Colorado Springs being the lone outlier, and he looks ripe for that now overdue call up.
The Mariners could certainly use him. For the first time since 2009, Seattle is above .500 this late in the season and at 42-36, they occupy the second wild card spot in the American League. With the second best ERA in the American League, they have more offensive needs than pitching ones, but that does not mean their rotation lacks for want.
Seattle just sent down their struggling fifth starter, Erasmo Ramirez, and no replacement has been announced. While the Mariners may not immediately promote Walker, its possible, if not likely, that they will hand the keys to a spot starter – perhaps Tom Wilhelmsen or Charlie Furbush, each of whom has starting experience in the minors – before giving the job to Walker in a week or two.
This was the plan from the start of the season, to have one of the best pitching prospects in baseball throwing every fifth day. The stats seem to agree that he would at least be at better than Erasmo Ramirez was. Ramirez pitched to a 4.58 ERA in 11 starts. Walker had a 3.60 ERA and 2.25 FIP in three major league starts last season and Steamer, Fangraphs’ sabemetric projector, conservatively predicts the rookie will amass a 4.27 ERA in the majors this year
And the scouting reports speak for themselves. ESPN’s prospect analyst Keith Law wrote that the California native “earn(s) comparisons to a young Doc Gooden, but with better makeup.”
This is a kid who throws 97 MPHs, who experts at both Sports Illustrated and ESPN thought would contend for 2014 AL Rookie of the Year, and who Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan wrote was “everything baseball needs and more.” After last night’s performance, one thing is clear: He is on his way.