Taijuan Walker and the Mariners Connect Again

The Mariners are bringing former top prospect Taijuan Walker back to the Northwest. Yesterday afternoon, the right-hander signed a one-year contract worth a base salary of $2 million, with incentives that could push the deal up to $3 million. As with Kendall Graveman earlier this winter, the Mariners have done well to round out their thin rotation with a low-cost option that could plausibly produce a significant return on their investment.

Unlike with Graveman, there’s plenty of sentimental value here, too. For most of the early part of the decade, Walker was the player Mariners fans salivated to see. Prior to Seattle’s current crop of farmhands, Walker led the vanguard of exciting Mariners prospects, the jewel in a class that also included Danny Hultzen, Brandon Maurer, and James Paxton. Stories of Walker’s athleticism and skill spread quickly as he blitzed through Seattle’s system — my personal favorite is the time he wrote “Tai was here” on a piece of athletic tape and then showed off his NBA-esque vertical by jumping and sticking the tape too high for anybody else to reach — and many pinned their hopes of a Mariners resurgence on his powerful shoulders.

But just when Walker looked ready to make his mark in Seattle, he suffered a few incremental setbacks. He needed the better part of two years of seasoning at the upper minors before reaching the big leagues for good in 2015, and then ran into plenty of bumps that first season. His secondaries backed up between Double-A and the show, and big league hitters routed his pin-straight fastball and sloppy secondaries over the first two months of the year — a period during which a promising Mariners club imploded in part because of Walker’s 7.33 ERA in his first nine starts.

He righted the ship at midseason though, tweaking his slider and throwing far more strikes. Over his last 20 starts, he averaged six innings per outing, struck out nearly a batter per inning, walked only 17 hitters, and notched a tidy 3.66 ERA. He started 2016 even better, throwing smoke and missing bats like never before. In four starts that April, he fanned 25 hitters in as many innings while allowing just three walks, one homer, and four earned runs. For all the world, it looked like he was actualizing.

A funny thing happened on the way to Cooperstown. For the next five months, Walker was dogged by nagging injuries, inconsistency, and occasional bouts of immaturity that exacerbated each of the first two problems. A promising season spun off the rails in the dog days of summer, and while he finished strong, the Mariners had seen enough: He was dealt to Arizona in a blockbuster deal that winter with Ketel Marte in exchange for Mitch Haniger and Jean Segura.

With the Snakes in 2017, Walker put together his finest professional season. Leaning on a newly sharpened curve, Tai took the ball 28 times and posted a 3.49 ERA and a 4.04 FIP, both of which were career bests. He also struck out more hitters while turning into something of a groundball pitcher — a useful profile for a hurler working in the desert during the most pronounced (at the time) rabbit ball season yet. A 2.5 WAR pitcher, Walker may not have hit the immense ceiling forecast for him as a teenager, but it appeared that he had settled in as a solid mid-rotation arm on a good team.

As often happens in life, circumstances change when we feel most settled. Three starts into the 2018 campaign, Walker felt discomfort in his elbow, pain that turned out to be a partial tear in his UCL, which required Tommy John surgery. Early April is a tough time to get that procedure, as it can knock a pitcher out for not only that season but also the following year. That essentially happened to Walker, who missed almost all of the past two years, returning to throw a solitary inning in Game 162 last season. He missed a few bats and threw about as hard as he typically has, and it was a feel-good moment… right until it wasn’t, when Arizona subsequently chose to non-tender him anyway.

As Patrick Dubuque covered over at Baseball Prospectus, Walker was a casualty of the harsh economic reality awaiting arbitration-eligible players with muddled near-term futures. Had the Diamondbacks retained his services, he’d have been in line for a salary of approximately $5 million. That’s a bargain for a mid-rotation starter, but apparently a little too steep for Arizona’s blood, particularly given their rotation depth.

Instead, Walker returns to Seattle, still relatively young (he’s 27) and again with everything to prove. This is a good match of player and team. The Mariners are not going to be competitive. Every projection system on the planet has them buried in last place in the West, and they have one of the shallowest rotations in baseball. ZiPS projects that just five Mariners pitchers will accrue 1 WAR this year, and two of them may not even make the team out of spring training. If Walker’s healthy enough to pitch, he’ll make the team. Any volume he provides is gravy.

As to what we and the Mariners should expect, it’s hard enough to project a player’s performance in the best of times, and doing so for a guy who has barely pitched for two years makes the challenge even harder. ZiPS has always been game for this kind of speculation though, and when the system looks at Walker, it sees a capable, if mediocre starter:

ZiPS Projection – Taijuan Walker
2020 5 5 4.64 16 16 85.0 87 14 33 73 93 0.9

That line seems like a good hedge between the performance level Walker established in Arizona and the risks associated with any pitcher returning from a lengthy spell on the sidelines. It takes about a year for pitchers to get their command back after surgery, and that’s reflected in the high walk rate and low innings projections. While there’s room for more if Walker shows up to spring training fresh, healthy (the early reports are good), and well-rested, he may be rusty out of the gate and probably won’t be pushed hard even if he makes the Opening Day rotation.

Of course, it’s almost spring, the time of year when baseball fans can and should dream about something better than a backend starter. For better or worse, Seattle fans will remember Walker as a talented flamethrower oozing with potential. For those with lingering memories of his tantalizing gifts, the above projections may look like a disappointing or banal statistical observation, a distraction from a potentially compelling narrative where the homegrown prospect returns to make good.

Or maybe it just adds to this particular player’s hero journey. To this point, Walker hasn’t had the career he envisioned. He’s been inconsistent, hurt, and now cast aside by his former employer. In Seattle, Walker can rewrite the script, and at a time he’s young enough to really make the most of that chance. It’s a fantastic opportunity, one that provides Mariners fans with a spark of excitement in a year that otherwise looks pretty gloomy.

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4 years ago

Brandon Maurer?? Umm, no… Ok I’ll keep reading.