By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
GOODYEAR, Ariz. — For the first four innings, and really for subsequent innings, 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 years. The next question is when will some of the plethora of talented pitching prospects in Seattle’s minor league system be ready to join him.
On Wednesday, left-hander Danny Hultzen and right-hander Taijuan Walkergave a glimpse of what could and hopefully will be for the Mariners in the very near future. Each threw two shutout innings and combined to strike out six batters in the Mariners’ 5-1 win over the Cleveland Indians at Goodyear Ballpark.
Baseball America ranks Walker 17th in its top 100 prospects and puts Hultzen 29th.
“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.
The Mariners probably have two open spots with Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Joe Saunders likely penciled into the starting rotation. Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan and veteran Jon Garland might have a head start on the final two spots because of their experience. The Mariners also aren’t willing to rush Hultzen, Walker or fellow pitchers James Paxton and Brandon Maurer to the big leagues.
Still, Wedge won’t completely rule it out. If one of them is the best pitcher for the spot, then they will make the move up. And it’s going to take more than putting up good numbers in spring training for Wedge 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 Class AA Jackson to start last season followed by uneven results for Class AAA Tacoma to end the season.
On Wednesday, it looked like his first Cactus League start would be derailed by 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 he 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 melted with anxiety. Not this year. He bounced back and struck out Ben Francisco swinging with a nice curveball.
“That’s something 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 the 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. His first pitch — though 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 1-2-3 third inning. The most impressive out came against Marson. Walker got ahead 1-2, and then tried to put Marson away with back-to-back curveballs. Both were low and in the dirt, but had tremendous break.
“The 1-2 pitch I tried to bury it, and I went back to it and I didn’t want 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” curve ball grip, but a ripped-finger nail forced him to go back to other grip instead.
“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. After the two quick outs, Walker 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.”
After their outing, the two teammates and friends and sat in the dugout discussing their outings and then did their postgame running together as well.
“You never feel alone,” Hultzen said of their 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.”