Taijuan Walker staying put with Mariners

Prized pitching prospect Taijuan Walker was high on the trade lists of many teams, but the Mariners want him in their rotation

Staff writerJanuary 24, 2014 

The question to Seattle Mariners pitching prospect Taijuan Walker sought his reaction to hearing his name regularly linked to trade rumors earlier this winter.

“It was a little crazy,” he admitted during the Mariners’ pre-spring training media luncheon Thursday at Safeco Field. “My mom definitely didn’t want me to go anywhere.

“She was always in my ear. ‘Ask your agent this. … Find out if you’re going anywhere.’ I just tried not to pay attention to any of that kind of stuff. I just let my mom do it.”

A bit later, Walker said he is trying to minimize the attention and growing expectations surrounding his efforts to secure a spot this spring in the club’s starting rotation.

“I’m just trying to keep it the same,” he said. “I don’t really look at (that). … I’ll just leave that to my mom and my family. I just want to go out there and play baseball and help my team any way I can.”

Mom, again.

Should we be talking to her?

“People call her to do interviews and stuff,” Walker admitted through a growing smile. “More than me, sometimes. She wanted to be here. ‘I want to be there. I want to do interviews with you.’

“ ‘Next time, you just come. You take my place.’ ”

For interviews, maybe. On the mound? Walker, 21, offers that most coveted of baseball commodities: front-of-the-rotation potential that is not only youthful, but controllable and affordable for years to come.

MLB.com recently cited Walker as the game’s No. 2 right-handed pitching prospect. Manager Lloyd McClendon, asked for a comparison, offered up a 2006 Justin Verlander.

That was Verlander as a 23-year-old rookie in Detroit, a season that coincided with McClendon’s first year as a coach on manager Jim Leyland’s staff.

Verlander made a couple of starts the previous year, as Walker did last season for the Mariners, as a means of providing an acclimatizing taste.

“We were hoping he could hold his own and make it through the season,” McClendon said.

Verlander went 17-9 with a 3.63 earned-run average in 2006, and the Tigers, coming off a 71-victory season, won their way to the World Series. The Mariners, ahem, are coming off a 71-victory season.

“Sometimes, you just take off,” McClendon said, “and it becomes magical.”

Let’s quantify that magic: Walker, at 6-feet-4 and 220 pounds, combines a fastball in the mid- to upper 90s with effective secondary pitches that, through four minor league seasons, produced 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings.

Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik characterizes him as the “top athlete in the organization,” and the regard for Walker within the industry crystallized last month at the winter meetings in Orlando, Fla.

It was there that the Tampa Bay Rays, looking (and still looking) to deal former Cy Young winner David Price, circulated word that Walker sat atop their preferred list of trade targets.

Zduriencik dismissed the likelihood of a deal at that time and reiterated that position in Thursday’s interview sessions.

“We’ve put too much into this,” he said, “and we’ve been too patient as an organization to turn around and make a trade for someone who we’re going to have for two years of control or someone of that nature.

“I don’t suspect that’s going to be in our cards. I would not say ‘no’ to anything, but that’s certainly not the plan today.”

If you’re wondering, any club acquiring Price would control him for the next two years before he qualifies for free agency.

For all of that, Zduriencik declines to label Walker as anything more than a candidate for one of the three rotation slots behind mainstays Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma as the Mariners prepare for spring training.

“Erasmo (Ramirez) probably has the upper hand because he’s had more experience,” Zduriencik said. “The rest of them, let them fight it out.”

In contrast, McClendon said he expects to break camp with Walker in the rotation: “Yes, I do. I’d be very disappointed if he’s not.”

Hearing that, Walker acknowledged that creates “pressure” to perform.

“I don’t want to disappoint the skip,” he said, “but I’m just going to go out there and compete and work on the stuff I need to work on. … I’m going to go into spring training and work on my curveball and change-up.

“I just want to go out there and have fun.”

He has his mom, after all, to do any worrying.

bob.dutton@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @TNT_Mariners

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