A year and a half after Taijuan Walker enjoyed a sneak preview of Safeco Field at the Seattle Mariners’ 2012 winter FanFest, the team’s top pitching prospect moved closer to his ultimate destination.
Walker was bumped up Friday from the organization’s Double-A affiliate in Jackson, Tenn., to Tacoma, where last night he facede a Pacific Coast League team aptly nicknamed the Grizzlies.
Walker’s last three Southern League starts with the Generals were sensational — he struck out 28 batters in 20 innings, allowing only one walk — but savvy Triple-A hitters will present a different challenge for the 20-year-old right-hander.
A lot of these guys have major league experience. They don’t give up at-bats, no matter the score, and they don’t give in to pitchers. That Walker seems to be speeding to The Show in an express lane won’t be lost on them, either.
The gap between Double A and Triple A might be more pronounced than Triple A to the major leagues, but as Walker chatted in the third-base dugout Sunday before the Rainiers’ victory over Fresno, the PCL’s youngest player exuded confidence.
“I’m excited and happy to be here,” he said, “but at the same time, it’s not my last stop. There’s still one more step I want to get to.”
Since that 2012 FanFest appearance with fellow pitching prospects Danny Hultzen and James Paxton, the 6-foot-4 Walker — then the gawky teenager of the trio — has filled out and grown up.
Last season, Walker struggled to work beyond the fourth or
fifth inning. At issue was his endurance (since addressed by maintaining a strict workout regimen) and his mechanics. The fastball that has wowed scouts since high school still was popping, but he had trouble locating it, and he had lost faith in the curve and change-up, his usual secondary pitches.
“Pretty much every pitch was a problem for me last year,” said Walker, who spent the entire season in Double A. “I really didn’t have my breaking ball, didn’t have my change-up. And my fastball command wasn’t there at all.
“So I made some tweaks. So much of it is mental, too. Mentally, I feel a lot stronger. My confidence is real high right now.”
Walker has added a cut fastball to his repertoire. Breaking right to left toward the plate, it clocks between 88 and 94 mph, effectively complementing a four-seam fastball that tops out at 98.
“The cutter is a pitch I can throw for a strike,” Walker said. “And it helps because it gets the hitters off my fastball. I get a lot of first-pitch ground balls with it.”
Walker’s 4-7 record through 14 starts with the Generals this spring underscored the flaws of judging a pitcher’s work on wins and losses. He held the opposition to a .195 batting average, allowing 58 hits in 84 innings. And after some early season control problems, Walker produced a strikeout-to-walk ratio — 96-33 — that convinced the Mariners there was nothing left for him to prove in Double A.
While Rainiers manager John Stearns is happy to acquire another power arm for a young rotation full of them, he’s wary that the hype surrounding Walker’s Triple-A debut will create unrealistic expectations.
“Everybody in the organization is happy to have him, but we don’t want to put too much pressure on him,” Stearns said Sunday. “He might struggle. Remember, Hultzen came up here last season and struggled a little bit.”
Actually, Hultzen struggled more than a little bit after his June 20 promotion.
A Southern League All-Star in Jackson, where he went 8-3 with a 1.19 earned-run average, Hultzen finished 1-4 with a 5.92 ERA in Tacoma.
Hultzen was 22, with an impressive resume from the University of Virginia that included two Atlantic Coast Conference pitcher of the year awards and national TV exposure in the College World Series. All of which meant squat to Triple-A hitters.
“This kid is only, what, 20 years old?” Stearns said of Walker. “How many times do you see a 20-year-old kid at this level? Almost never.
“He needs to come in here, and he needs to learn how to pitch at this level. We don’t know how he’s going to do yet, but we feel in the long run, he’ll have success.”
It’s risky making assumptions off the game face of a kid two days ahead of his first Triple-A start, but if Walker is as rudely awakened Tuesday as Hultzen was a year ago, it won’t be a case of stage fright.
“Being in Triple A at my age, around older guys, will help me,” he said. “As years go on, you try to mature. You don’t want to stand in one spot.”
As Walker talked, he looked around Cheney Stadium — the gates hadn’t opened yet — and smiled with the assurance of somebody who wasn’t planning to stand in one spot very long.
“This is a really nice park,” he said.
Jackson was in the rear-view mirror. Seattle was 35 miles away. The last leg of his journey, the toughest leg, began Tuesday.