As the line for the Seattle Mariners’ FanFest formed outside Safeco Field’s home-plate entrance Saturday morning, a street-corner protester held a sign aloft.
And what, pray tell, does a FanFest protester protest? Gay marriage? Abortion clinics? Political oppression in Tibet?
Wrong, wrong and wrong.
The protester was pleading for the Mariners to move in the outfield fences. A discussion as old as the ballpark – it opened in 1999 – was revisited last week after right-handed slugger Prince Fielder appeared to look at Seattle’s free-agent offer as it were a side dish he didn’t order.
I’m not sure shorter dimensions suddenly will find right-handed power hitters clamoring to relocate to major league baseball’s equivalent of Siberia. What I do know is the time for fence-tweaking isn’t now because three of the game’s most heralded minor league pitchers are under Seattle’s umbrella.
BaseballAmerica revealed its annual list of top 100 prospects the other day, and the Mariners’ showing was quite more positive than anything they’ve done on the field the past two seasons.
Danny Hultzen was ranked the fourth-best left-hander, and No. 20 overall. James Paxton checked in at eighth among southpaws, and No. 37 overall – five slots ahead of right-hander Taijuan Walker.
The three prospects on Saturday were invited to Safeco Field, where they chatted with reporters and participated in a meet-and-greet session with fans. At the end of the day, this much was clear: If these guys are as polished on the mound as they are in front of strangers, the Mariners’ pitching staff soon could be the envy of the American League.
The question, of course, is how soon? BaseballAmerica estimates Hultzen and Paxton making their major league debuts in 2012, with Walker arriving in 2015.
It’s a reasonable projection. Hultzen, the former University of Virginia ace who dominated the Arizona Fall League after signing a contract in August, is thought to be closest to The Show.
The second overall selection of the 2011 amateur draft, Hultzen, at 22, has uncommon control for a left-handed power pitcher.
Paxton, 23, throws slightly harder than Hultzen – his fastball reaches 98 mph – and he knows how to set up hitters with a curve that also serves as a strikeout pitch.
Walker has both the highest ceiling of the three and, at 19, the longest wait. Like a lot of kids, he preferred basketball to baseball in high school, and requires some nurturing. Yet he showed enough talent to earn honors as the Mariners’ 2011 Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
Before Paxton was promoted to Double-A last season, he and Walker were Single-A teammates at Clinton, Iowa. They’re more familiar with each other than they are with Hultzen, who didn’t sign his contract until the August deadline and is still waiting to face a minor league hitter for the first time.
“He took me under his wing last year,” Walker said of Paxton. “He’s like a big brother to me.”
Said Paxton of Walker: “He’s a young stud, pretty awesome with electric stuff. It was a good experience to be able to watch him every fifth day.”
Hultzen, meanwhile, has only seen Walker throw once, during a casual game of catch in Arizona. It would be fair to suggest Hultzen was wowed.
“I could tell, just by the sound the ball made when it was caught, that he’s special,” Hultzen said. “The ball crackled.”
Each of the three has a specialty. BaseballAmerica notes that Walker has the best fastball among Mariners prospects (he also was named the farm system’s best all-around athlete), while Paxton owns the best curve, and Hultzen throws the best change-up.
In terms of experience, Paxton has the edge. As a teenager, the native of Richmond, B.C., pitched for the Canadian junior national team, whose coaches were affiliated with the University of Kentucky. Which explains how a kid who was living in the Vancouver area ended up in Lexington, Ky.
Paxton was taken as a supplemental first-round choice by the Blue Jays in the 2009 draft, but his agent, Scott Boras, couldn’t reach terms.
Paxton’s mediocre work in the independent American Association reduced him to a fourth-round selection in 2010, but don’t be deceived: This is a first-round talent whose bounce-back season of 2011 included better numbers in Double-A (3-0, 51 strikeouts in 39 innings, a .201 opponents’ batting average) than he produced in Single-A.
Hultzen, on the other hand, will go to spring training attempting to make the big leagues straight from college. It’s a rare leap but not unprecedented: Arizona State’s Mike Leake accomplished the transition with the 2010 Reds.
Wherever Hultzen ends up – my suspicion is he’ll make more than a few starts in Cheney Stadium – he’s looking forward to a summer that revolves around baseball.
“It was weird, not pitching last summer,” Hultzen said. “Growing up, playing Little League and then being on traveling teams, summer was my favorite time of the year.”
The three prospects share one thing in common: They throw gas.
“It’s amazing, how baseball has changed that way,” former Mariners outfielder Jay Buhner said Saturday. “It used to be, only a few guys could throw 95-96: Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, maybe some closers. Now they’re bigger and stronger, and training year-round with weights. There’s also an awareness of the importance of nutrition.”
Of course, there’s an advantage of pitching in Seattle, too. The park can flummox right-handed pull hitters – here we go, talking about those fences again – and Mariners fans are famously forgiving of inconsistent pitchers not named Bobby Ayala.
“Seattle is a great city,” said Paxton, who has relatives in the area. “I’m looking forward to maybe one day calling it home.”
Maybe one day.
During a FanFest brightened by the presence of three pitchers few of us had heard about a year ago, those three words said it all.