Jack Zduriencik makes his plans clear – the Seattle Mariners are building for the future.
Exactly when the future becomes the present is a project that has created impatient Mariners fans with each passing season out of the playoffs.
That win-filled future, which has kept fans enticed just enough to retain interest, is dependent on young players and prospects developing into what the Seattle general manager and his staff expect them to eventually become. Many of these prospects are trudging through a tumultuous 2012 season with the Mariners, but plenty more are working their way through the farm system and are expected contribute in the coming years.
Especially 22-year-old Danny Hultzen and 19-year-old Taijuan Walker.
Hultzen and Walker, the top two pitching prospects in the Mariners’ farm system, travel to the 14th annual All-Star Futures Game at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. (2 p.m. today, ESPN2).
“We have other players who are going to be part of this thing for years to come, but they are certainly two of the top players that we have,” Zduriencik said. “If these two kids stay healthy, we think they have a good chance to be very good pitchers for a long time.”
Zduriencik is hopeful that Hultzen’s and Walker’s appearance in the Futures Game is indicative of what they will bring to the Mariners’ future. They aren’t the game’s headliners, like Trevor Bauer of the Arizona Diamondbacks or Dylan Bundy of the Baltimore Orioles, but most all the top major league players have participated in the game at one point.
Last year, it was Bryce Harper and Mike Trout – this year they have upgraded to the MLB All-Star Game. Pitchers such as Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, CC Sabathia and even Felix Hernandez made appearances, too.
“The thing that is a big deal is staying healthy,” said Tacoma Rainiers manager Daren Brown, who coached Hernandez before he was brought up to the Mariners and now coaches Hultzen. “Felix was able to do that. If (Hultzen) stays healthy and continues to work on his pitches, he will be a guy we can count on pitching in Seattle, too.
Hultzen is showing to be the most major league ready of the two prospects. The Mariners brass was so pleased by the left-hander’s 1.19 earned-run average and 79 strikeouts in 13 starts at Double-A Jackson that they handed him a Tacoma Rainiers jersey.
But the Mariners’ No. 2 pick overall in the 2011 draft hasn’t enjoyed the same success in three starts in Triple-A, where he has thrown too many pitches in too few innings. He has become better with each one, though, as his latest outing resulted in his first Triple-A victory after allowing one earned run with six strikeouts in five innings on July 3.
“It’s your job as a pitcher to put your team in a position to win games,” Hultzen said. “Five innings isn’t the best, and you always hope to get to those later innings, but I’ll take it because, as a pitcher, it isn’t necessarily your job to go out there and throw a complete game or a no-hitter. You just want to put your team in a position to win, however that may be.”
The Hultzen-mania that has ensued whenever the young phenom starts at Cheney Stadium isn’t something going unnoticed by Zduriencik. Hultzen was relieved after three innings his first start and four his second (walking seven batters and allowing six runs in those seven innings), but Zduriencik is giving the same sentiment he is with the rest of the young players battling in Seattle.
“There are going to be setbacks and there are going to be challenges,” he said. “But in all of it, it is part of a growing process. These kids have to fail somewhere along the way so they know how to recover. When they struggle or hit a bump in the road, it is important to see how they react to it.”
And how has Hultzen reacted to each start in Tacoma? He has pitched more innings than the previous start, walked fewer batters and struck out more hitters.
“Any kid we have here we are hoping will progress to the point where he is going to be somebody that we can count on at the big league level,” Brown said. “Hultzen is no different, but obviously he is a guy that when you take him with your first pick in the draft, you expect him to be a guy that we can count on. He hasn’t done anything to show us that he is not.”
Walker joined Hultzen on the Double-A Southern League All-Star team, but just like Hultzen, he hasn’t been without his struggles. Walker is 5-4 at Jackson with a 4.50 ERA, but the flame-throwing right-hander has 71 strikeouts in 70 innings, and certainly has a lot of room to grow, having not yet reached his 20th birthday.
The Mariners envision a future with Hultzen and Walker complementing Hernandez in the Mariners’ starting rotation. Walker still appears to be a few years away, but Zduriencik didn’t discount the possibility of Hultzen joining the Mariners later this year.
“We don’t want to rule anything out,” Zduriencik said. “But you also have to think of what is in the best interest of every individual player. We don’t want to put a stamp on anything and say he has to do this and this such thing. That would be foolish. We are just going to monitor him and we look forward to him continuing through the challenges he has ahead of him.”
The trick for Zduriencik is not trying to force the future to come too soon.
“They are two guys that we think have a chance to be really good,” Zduriencik said. “They are two very talented kids, and we will continue to watch them. They are going to have very nice big league careers as big league pitchers.”