45 Prospects in 45 Days: Seattle’s Taijuan Walker
Taijuan Walker was drafted in the first round (supplemental) with the 43rd pick overall out of high school in Washington state and secured an $800,000 signing bonus. The 21 year-old right-hander stands 6’ 4”, weighs 210 pounds and looks like he might fit in more as a basketball or soccer player than a baseball player. His athleticism is evident from the moment he strides to the mound. Walker made his major league debut last year at the end of August and ended up starting three games for the Mariners in the final month of the season.
Jason Parks and the crew at Baseball Prospectus have Walker as the eighth best prospect in the game heading into 2014 and rated as the top prospect in the Mariners’ system. Parks would like to see better command so that he can achieve his overall future potential (or OFP) of a #2 starter:
Walker needs to refine his command and his secondary arsenal, but the fastball is a high-end major-league pitch, and the cutter can bail him out of situations.
Keith Law puts him at number 16 (down from nine last year) in his top 100 and at the top of the Mariners’ list. Law would like to see some mechanical changes from Walker to complete the conversion from prospect to ace:
A pitcher with his classic frame who can hit 97 mph and has a potential out pitch (the cutter) is still an outstanding prospect, the best in the Mariners’ system, but there will be unrealized potential here if he doesn’t get back to finishing over his front side and getting that bite back on his curveball.
Baseball America also has Walker rated as the #1 prospect for Seattle and rate his fastball and slider as tops in the organization.
MLB.com (who added Jim Callis from Baseball America this year) has him rated the highest of all and puts Walker as the fourth best prospect in all of baseball. They note that command is also an issue at this point:
He has the makings of an excellent three-pitch mix, with a plus fastball, complemented by a curve and changeup, both of which have the chance to be at least above-average. He still needs to tighten up his command, but his athleticism – he was a basketball standout in high school – should allow him to improve on that and become the frontline starter people project him as.
So, the 21 year old needs to work on command. What 21 year old doesn’t? He’s been young for his league at every stop and should get a great chance to stick in the major league rotation this year. As you can see from the short bullpen session below, there is some nice movement on the offspeed pitch, but he doesn’t look completely comfortable with it (nor does the catcher). The full video can be seen here (courtesy of Christopher Blessing).
Minor League Production
And how has Walker performed when being young (and sometimes the youngest) player in a league? Quite admirably over his four seasons in the minors (stats courtesy of Baseball Reference):
Walker has kept his K/9 (and K%) at relatively the same level as he’s climbed the ladder. His BB/9 rate (and BB%) has also been pretty consistent over his four seasons. Both portend success in the future at the major league level if he continues to adjust as he has in the past.
The first thing that jumps out is that none of the three projection systems have Walker throwing more innings than he did last year (he threw 156 1/3 over three levels which implies he should be ready for around 180 in 2014). It could be that the systems assume he’ll spend some times in the minor leagues (or perhaps on the DL). So, there is some upside to these projections if Walker makes the rotation out of spring training as manager Lloyd McLendon has said he will.
However, all three projection systems are quite lukewarm on Walker’s chances overall this year. The systems see him as league average (or perhaps a tick above), so don’t go all out in your bidding for Walker in redraft leagues. He’s, of course, a stud in dynasty formats and should be treated as one of the better pitching prospects (if not the best) in the game.
Walker’s number one comp per ZiPS is Jason Schmidt who had some terrific years in the NL prior to succumbing to injury.
Walker has entered camp with a rotation spot written in pencil. However, he’s off to a slow start as a shoulder injury has hindered him from full participation in the early part of spring training. Currently, the Mariners are saying it is a minor issue, but monitor the situation as the spring progresses.
I believe Walker (if healthy) will outperform all three of his projected lines above. He pitches in a friendly park, gets to face a soft set of divisional opponents (Astros, Angels, A’s) with only the Texas Rangers posing an above average offense.
The addition of Scott Baker to the rotation mix does cloud Walker’s situation, but he shouldn’t have any issue beating out fellow rookie James Paxton for a spot. Walker has progressed up the ladder and is ready to sink or swim at the major league level. His command will come as he gets more comfortable with his secondary pitches. There will be bumps in the road this season, but a full year ERA close to 3.80, a WHIP of 1.30 in about 175 innings pitched with 160 strikeouts puts Walker in line to be a top 40 pitcher in my estimation in 2014.