August 29, 2013
The Situation: After designating veteran righty Aaron Harang for assignment earlier this week, the Mariners will call up top prospect Taijuan Walker to start Friday’s game against the Houston Astros. Seattle will look to get Walker a taste of big-league competition while injecting some intrigue into a rotation that has been extremely shaky past the 1-2 punch of Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. The other seven starting pitchers used by Seattle this season have a cumulative 5.55 ERA in 76 starts.
Walker, who ranked no. 9 on Baseball Prospectus’ mid-season top 50 prospects list, will likely make at least a couple big-league starts before season’s end. After logging 126 2/3 innings at Double-A last year, he joins the M’s with 141 1/3 frames under his belt in 2013. Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN in Seattle has reported that Walker’s ideal innings cap is approximately 160, leaving some wiggle room for September.
Background: A product of Yucaipa High School in Southern California, Walker was Seattle’s top pick (no. 43 overall) in the 2010 draft. The 6-foot-4 righty was actually an accomplished basketball player as a youngster and didn’t toe the rubber full-time until his senior year. Primarily a shortstop on the diamond as a junior, Walker was noticed by scouts at Yucaipa while playing alongside 2009 first-round pick Matt Davidson. He told the story himself in our video interview earlier this season.
At the time he signed, Walker was understandably regarded as a pitching project with immense pure talent. He proved to be more advanced than initially thought in his first full season, however, as he flashed dominant stuff and posted a 2.89 ERA with Single-A Clinton in 2010. After spending his age-19 season at Double-A Jackson last year, Walker has split the 2013 campaign between Jackson and Triple-A Tacoma. The 21-year-old (as of August 13) has a combined 2.93 ERA in 141 1/3 innings between the two levels, yielding 112 hits, walking 57, and striking out 160.
Scouting Report: When I recently scouted Walker for BP’s Eyewitness Accounts series, I pegged him as a role 7 player with a no. 2 starter projection. The California native attacks hitters with power and relies heavily on his fastball-cutter combination. He produces seemingly effortless 92-98 mph velocity from his strong frame, presenting it to hitters on a steep downward plane. His cutter––which can touch 93 mph––is another potential plus-plus pitch; it has hard, short break with some late tilt, and he’ll use it as a weapon against both left- and right-handed hitters.
Walker’s fastball-cutter mix and highly competitive demeanor should enable at least some level of short-term MLB success as long as he’s locating well enough. In the long run, his overall command and the consistency of his two off-speed offerings––a 73-75 mph curve and hard changeup––will determine whether he’s able to reach his elite ceiling. Both the curve (future solid-average for me) and change (future average) are perhaps more change-of-pace offerings than consistent knockouts, though his curve has huge depth and can induce the occasional silly swing.
While Walker’s feel for the curve is inconsistent and his change is a work in progress (though improving), he has made definite strides in terms of repeating his delivery and improving his fastball/cutter command this season. The top prospect still has development remaining before he’s ready for a full-time big-league gig, but he’s a standout athlete who’s steadily moving in the right direction.
Immediate Big-League Future: Walker still needs time in the minors to refine his overall command and secondary consistency, but since he had only one scheduled start remaining at Triple-A Tacoma, I don’t believe the Mariners are hindering his development with this call-up. While the right-hander may run into some pitch count issues against disciplined major-league hitters and likely won’t be dominant this time around, his power fastball-cutter combination should enable him to hold his own, at the very least. —Jason Cole
Fantasy Impact: This is one we’ve been waiting on for a while now. While some prospects skip Triple-A entirely, Walker’s age made it unlikely that he would take the same accelerated trip to Seattle. However, the fantasy community has been anticipating this news since around mid-July, after Walker had a few Tacoma outings under his belt. Instead of a September call-up, we get him just a few days before the first of the month.
Walker brings almost the complete potential package to the table, with elite strikeout ability and great ratio capability. Wins are always unpredictable, especially in a one-month sample, but being a Mariner doesn’t set him up particularly well, especially in light of the team’s ice-cold offense of late. As a result, call him a three-out-of-four guy in the standard 5x5 categories. If you can acquire multiple points in one or more of those three categories, you need to consider expending the entirety of your remaining free agent budget on Walker.
Not only is it unlikely that a better option will arrive later in the month, but time is at a premium with so little of it remaining, so an extra start or two could make a big difference depending on your place in the standings. I would definitely be looking at a massive bid if I stood to gain quickly in strikeouts, as Walker is a shoo-in to deliver there immediately even if the ERA and WHIP don’t follow right away.
If your league allows $0 bids, go all out. If not, then you might be more inclined to save a few bucks just to plug any other September holes. Let your standings and league rules dictate your action, but be aggressive here. —Paul Sporer
Jason Cole is an author of Baseball Prospectus.