Young Rainiers arms at home in Tennessee
While the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers opened their season at home at Cheney Stadium, much of the focus on the Seattle minor league system was 2,300 miles away in Jackson, Tenn.
The Mariners’ Double-A affiliate, the Jackson Generals, opened the season with the three starting pitching prospects who have come to be known as the “Big Three.”
James Paxton, Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker make up 60 percent of the Generals’ rotation – and they are each considered top pitching prospects in the game.
Paxton, 23, is the oldest and most experienced of the trio. The left-hander finished an outstanding 2011 campaign at the Double-A level, and there was some thought that he might open the current season in Tacoma. Erratic command during spring training led to a repeat assignment in Jackson – for now, at least.
Paxton has made two starts for Jackson, allowing just one run in 10 innings for a 0.87 ERA. Paxton has given up six hits and walked one. But most impressive are his strikeouts: He has struck out 17 of the 37 batters he has faced, including a 10-strikeout performance in his first start of the season.
Also a left-hander, Hultzen is making his professional debut at Jackson after being drafted No. 2 overall last June. He’s an advanced first-year player who pitched in the College World Series last year, so the Mariners decided that Double-A would be a good test for Hultzen.
After two starts, Hultzen is 0-2 with a 4.66 ERA. In 92/3 innings he has walked six batters and given up five hits. The 22-year-old has racked up 16 strikeouts, including punchouts of half of the right-handed batters he has faced.
Teenager Walker is the youngest and perhaps most talented of the bunch. The Mariners aggressively promoted Walker to Double-A, electing to have him skip the high-scoring environment of their Class-A High Desert affiliate.
Thrown into the fire against hitters as many as eight years older, Walker held his own in his Double-A debut Monday against Birmingham. Walker pitched five innings against the White Sox affiliate, giving up two runs and striking out eight while walking one.
Walker’s second start, which had been scheduled for Saturday night, was pushed back to Tuesday because he woke up with a stiff neck and the Mariners don’t want to risk any injury – an early sign of exactly how careful and conservative the Mariners are treating these elite-level prospects.