For the first four innings Wednesday, it was difficult not to imagine what the Seattle Mariners’ starting rotation could be in the coming years.
The Mariners know they have Felix Hernandez locked up for the next seven seasons, but the next question is, when will the plethora of pitching prospects in their minor league system be ready to join him?
Left-hander Danny Hultzen, ranked 29th in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects, and right-hander Taijuan Walker, ranked 18th, gave a glimpse of what could be for the Mariners in the very near future.
The two youngsters threw two shutout innings apiece, and combined to strike out six batters, while showing why they are so highly touted in the Mariners’ 5-1 win over the Cleveland Indians at Goodyear Ballpark.
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“All of our young pitchers have handled themselves very well,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “They are throwing the ball for strikes for the most part, pitching to their strengths, and they look comfortable out there, which says a lot about them.”
But can either of those youngsters
win a spot in the big league rotation like Michael Pineda did in 2010? The odds are against them. Seattle likely has two open spots with Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Joe Saunders likely set for the rotation. Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan and veteran Jon Garland may have a head start because of their experience. The Mariners also aren’t willing to rush Hultzen, Walker or fellow pitchers James Paxton and Brandon Maurer to the majors.
Still, Wedge didn’t completely rule it out. If one of them is the best pitcher for the spot, then they will move up. And it’s going to take more than putting up good numbers in spring training to make that decision.
“I really don’t get caught up in numbers in spring training,’’ Wedge said. “It’s more about their stuff and how they handle themselves — what we feel like will play at the big league level at the start of the regular season. Of course, you look at their experience, you look at their path; why they’re here and what got them here, and then you put it all together.’’
Hultzen’s path included a dominating stop in Double-A Jackson to start the 2012 season followed by uneven results in Triple-A Tacoma to end the season.
On Wednesday, it looked like his first Cactus League start would be derailed by a lack of command.
After getting a quick out, Hultzen walked Lou Marson. He then came back and struck out Jason Giambi swinging, but with two outs gave up a soft single to Cord Phelps and then walked Ryan Raburn to load the bases.
“I think I was trying to do a little too much,’’ Hultzen said. “I think I was trying to throw the ball a little too hard and it kind of took me out of my mechanics a little bit.’’
A year ago, Hultzen might have become even more anxious. Not this year. He bounced back and struck out veteran Ben Francisco swinging with a nice curveball.
“That’s something that comes along with maturity and experience,” Hultzen said. “A year ago, I probably would have tried even harder instead of relaxing and calming down.”
With his first-inning issues out of the way, Hultzen worked a smooth and solid second inning, striking out two of the three batters he faced.
“Danny has looked much more comfortable early on than he did last year,” Wedge said “That’s pretty common for a guy in his second year of camp.”
Walker came in and didn’t quite have the early struggles that Hultzen battled through.
In fact, his first pitch — although a ball — registered 97 mph on the radar gun.
“He’s big, he’s strong and he doesn’t try to do too much,” Wedge said. “He looks relaxed, his delivery looks pretty clean, and you see the way the ball jumps out of his hand.”
Walker worked a one-two-three third inning. The most impressive out came against Marson. Walker got ahead on a 1-2 count, and then tried to put Marson away with back-to-back curveballs. Both were low and in the dirt, but had tremendous break.
“I tried to bury it, and I went back to it (not wanting) to bury it, but I didn’t want to make it too much of a strike, and I ended up burying it again,” Walker said.
Walker had been using a “spiked” curveball grip, but a ripped fingernail forced him to go back to another grip.
“I actually felt comfortable and I felt the break was really sharp with it,” he said. “So I’m going to stick with that for now.”
With the count at 3-2, Walker coolly whipped a 96 mph fastball on the outside corner, freezing Marson.
“When it feels good out of your hand, you know it’s going to be a strike,” Walker said. “It felt good. It was 3-2 and I didn’t want to walk anyone.”
In the fourth inning, he struck out Phelps and got Raburn to ground out. Walker then walked Francisco on four pitches.
But three pitches later, he got Chris McGuinness to fly out to Carlos Peguero in right field.
“I feel more comfortable,” Walker said. “I was a little nervous before the game, but once I stepped on the mound I was fine.”
Done pitching for the day, friends Hultzen and Walker sat in the dugout discussing their outings and did their postgame running together as well.
“You never feel alone,” Hultzen said of his and Walker’s camaraderie. “It’s an awesome thing to have someone going through the exact same situation you are going through. You can talk about this stuff.”