Taijuan Walker, expected to be a part of the Mariners’ rotation out of spring training, will instead make his first major league start of the year tonight against the Astros.
Seattle’s top prospect has been working his way back from an impingement in his throwing shoulder. While pitching for Triple-A Tacoma, he threw a complete-game shutout against Oklahoma City in his most recent start last Tuesday, yielding just four hits and a walk.
So far this season he’s made eight rehab starts at high Class A, Double-A and Triple-A but pitched just 40 innings while Seattle monitored his workload. He eclipsed 100 pitches against Oklahoma City, and his command and velocity were in line with what the organization expects.
Walker replaces righthander Erasmo Ramirez, the weak link in an excellent Mariners rotation (starters have a combined 3.45 ERA). Ramirez had posted a 4.58 ERA in 11 starts, eclipsing six innings in just once.
Walker was at his dominant best while shutting out Oklahoma City last week. His fastball sat in the low 90s and flashed 95 mph. His command, which at times wavers, was sharp as 75 of his 109 pitches were strikes.
The righthander has outstanding athletic ability, which can be traced back to his basketball career in high school. Walker has two plus pitches, a fastball with plus armside action and a slider/cutter hybrid. The fastball ranges from 93-98 mph and usually sits at 95-96, while the slider is in the 88-92 range and has good, late break.
Scouts consider the slider his best pitch, even over his fastball. Walker also throws a curveball and changeup. The Mariners were so impressed with his brief 2013 major league experience that they planned for him to be a part of their Opening Day rotation, but that was thwarted by the shoulder issue.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Walker has only pitched 40 innings so far this year, so his arm should be fresh, but prior to his complete-game shutout on June 24, his longest outing had been 6 2/3 innings on June 14, when he threw 94 pitches. The Mariners will likely be cautious with 6-foot-4, 230-pounder’s workload at least in his first few starts.
Seattle limited Walker to 156 innings last season and might be cautious with him again over the final three months of this season. That shouldn’t deter fantasy owners from grabbing Walker, especially in a keeper league. He’ll have the benefit of pitching behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma and in the generous dimensions of Safeco Field.